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New Hope for Open Access

We have made “good progress” toward open access to scholarly research, especially results of research funded by government with our tax dollars. That is a bit of good news in this time of library bummers. It was also the best I could get from Corey Williams at the Washington Office of the American Library Association (ALA).

Under the current policy, published conclusions of National Institutes of Health (NIH)–sponsored research must be publicly available no later than one year after it is reported. NIH funds more health sciences research than any other agency or institution in the world. It took decades and all the political clout librarians could muster to achieve that mandate. Those who run NIH didn't oppose free public access to tax-supported research. The objections came from the scholarly publishers that spent big bucks and twisted arms all over Washington to prevent access to the research unless we paid them for it, too.

No one in the library field was surprised that the publishers used every possible resource to make us pay. They have raided library budgets for decades with absurdly excessive prices for the fruits of scholarly research already purchased by funding agencies and the compensation programs for scholars in the universities and institutions that conduct the research. The college and research library community has fought this exploitation with new strength and energy in recent decades. We are slowly winning back some of the access we lost to publisher profiteering. (See “Seeking the New Normal,” p. 36–40.)

In every session of Congress since 2006, the Federal Research Public Access Act (FRPAA) has been introduced, and it is about to be reintroduced this year. The act would require federal departments and agencies to make the research they have sponsored and funded available to the public within six months of publication, allowing more timely, free access to research results we've already bought with scarce tax money.

These efforts took great leadership and organization. The librarians even found allies in the academic and scholarly communities and in the halls of Congress. We owe tremendous gratitude and continued strong support to the cadres who fight these battles for open access under banners of the Association of Research Libraries (ARL), Scholarly Publishing and Academic Resources Coalition (SPARC), Association of College and Research Libraries (ACRL) (ALA's largest division), and dozens of academic institutions and their research librarians and scholars. The creativity and innovation in their strategies and tactics are legendary and a source of great pride to our embattled profession.

We didn't start the war with the publishers, and it took us years of abuses and declining revenues to organize to defend against them. As librarians reacted to these assaults on their budgets, publishers raised their rhetoric to new levels of shrill obfuscation. They began to sound like the health insurance companies that fought health-care reform.

The Professional & Scholarly Publishing Division of the Association of American Publishers even launched PRISM, the Partnership for Research Integrity in Science and Medicine. It hired a fancy PR firm to upgrade its hyperbole and called it “a coalition to alert Congress to the unintended consequences of government interference in scientific and scholarly publishing.” Obviously, the publishers weren't referring to the use of our taxes to sponsor research it could sell back to us in overly costly journals as “government interference.”

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Maybe, just maybe, our new, strong library leadership with its new connections in Washington can work with our nearly new federal administration in the fight for open access to scholarly research. Maybe we can convince Congress to pass FRPAA this year and make more tax-supported research freely accessible. We must stand behind our library leaders and, of course, cheer them on—and contact our members of Congress—as they pursue more of this “good progress”!



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