Thursday, June 15, 2006

Federal Research Public Access Act debate

From Inside Higher Ed comes a report on the debate over the Federal Research Public Access Act:

At first glance, it seems that the research world is united against the Federal Research Public Access Act. Scholarly associations are lining up to express their anger over the bill, which would have federal agencies require grant recipients to publish their research papers — online and free — within six months of their publication elsewhere.

Dozens of scholarly groups have joined in two letters — one organized by the Association of American Publishers and one by the Federation of American Societies for Experimental Biology. To look at the signatories (and the tones of the letters), it would appear that there’s a wide consensus that the legislation is bad for research. The cancer researchers are against it. The education researchers are against it. The biologists are against it. The ornithologists are against it. The anthropologists are against it. All of these groups are joining to warn that the bill could undermine the quality and economic viability of scholarly publishing.

There’s no doubt that many scholars do object to the legislation. But a rebellion of sorts is brewing online, where scholars who are, in theory, represented by some of these groups argue that the legislation would help research, that the scholarly associations are selling out their rank and file’s interests to prop up their publishing arms, and that the debate points to some underlying tensions about academic publishing in the digital age.

These scholars — with the leaders of this informal movement coming from anthropology — want Congress to know that their associations aren’t speaking for them, and they also want to draw attention to the fact that some scholarly groups didn’t sign on.

The bill that set off this debate is based on the premise — popular in Congress — that if taxpayers pay for research, they should be able to see the results of that research. That premise is being attached to a larger debate in scholarly publishing over “open access.” Proponents say that systems that provide for speedy, online, free publication assure the broadest possible access to cutting-edge knowledge. Critics of the idea say that the costs associated with journal subscriptions pay for quality control — and that open access is making their economic models fall apart because it removes the incentive for people (or, in the case of scholarly journals, institutions) to subscribe.

There are of course many types of open access — and professors and publishers have a range of views beyond simple pro/con. But in the reaction to the new legislation — sponsored by Sen. John Cornyn (R-Tex.) and Sen. Joseph Lieberman (D-Conn.) — has been swift and strong. The letter from the Association of American Publishers said that the bill would destroy the peer review system that assured journal quality and would turn federal agencies into competitors with scholarly publishers. The letter from the biologists’ group said that the legislation would do even more damage — hurting patient care in hospitals because the bill’s adoption would harm the continuing medical education programs subsidized by journals.

The full article goes into more detail. Connections to our book?


Scott Jaschik, "In whose interest?" Inside Higher Ed (15 June 2006).

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