Set knowledge free

We should make all publically funded research open access now.

by Trent M. Kays


Last week, President Barack Obama’s administration issued a directive instructing federal agencies to prepare plans to make federally funded science research publicly and openly available to U.S. taxpayers. This is a productive step forward in the battle for access to federally funded scientific knowledge.

Certain federal agencies are directed to develop a plan for open access within six months. This accelerated timeline should easily be achieved by even the most swamped federal agency. The ways in which to move toward open access are not complicated. We need only look to open access-supporting universities to find models worthy of emulation.

The attention the Obama administration has paid to this issue is commendable. I find it encouraging that the U.S. government sees the value in making federally funded scientific research open and readily available. I’ve been an advocate for open-access issues for a long time, and the only way I saw research becoming open on a massive scale was a powerful entity sanctioning it.

However, the administration’s latest directive isn’t without issue. The language of the directive is uninspiring. It directs federal agencies to make a plan to move to open access, but that’s about it. The directive reads as a way to appease open access advocates while putting off the main issue of public research access to a later date. I suppose this isn’t necessarily a negative thing. The federal government often moves at a snail’s pace, so it could’ve been a more active directive. I guess it’ll just have to work for now.

That being said, I am getting weary from having to acquiesce on issues of open-access research. I’ve said, “I guess it’ll just have to work for now” so many times that the words feel like acid on my tongue. I’m tired of asking, and I’m tired of waiting. I’m becoming impatient. I want all research at publically funded universities to be open to the public upon publication. It seems fair that if the public funds an institution where research takes place, they should have access to said research.

It feels unbelievably selfish and silly to publish research in places — journals, books, etc. — where the public can’t see or have access to it. The Fair Access to Science and Technology Research Act  addresses similar questions and issues as the administration’s open access directive. However, if passed, FASTR will carry the weight of Congress. I don’t know if that really means anything, but it will appear to secure important policy for the masses.

FASTR and the administration’s directive coupled together, offer a solid front and opportunity for federally funded research to not languish in closed-access academic publications. This is a wonderfully refreshing thing, but something is missing from both of them: the humanities and social sciences. It appears that the humanities and social sciences don’t really matter that much to Congress or the administration.

I don’t find this shocking. The assault on the humanities and social sciences has been ongoing for some time. In some fields, the ability to boil down data into explicit and clear percentages or numbers is not easy. The hard sciences and related fields have this aspect of research more readily available. It’s easy to synthesize some data, put in some graphs and numbers and spoon-feed it to politicians and financial decision-makers.

Still, I am disappointed that Obama — a man who comes from a humanities background — would seemingly care so little for the fields that made him who he is today. Obama is not a scientist; he’s a once community-entrenched lawyer and organizer. Yet, he continues to favor science, technology and math fields in prestige, backing and policy. I ask you: Why should STEM fields be treated so differently than non-STEM fields?

This binary of one set of fields against another set of fields abounds in higher education. While I’ve always preferred to see such arguments as ill-informed and brash, there can be no science without humanities, and there can be no humanities without scientific progress. This is a mutual relationship. I believe that both FASTR and the administration’s directive, while laudable, are lacking. They do not explicitly include humanities and social science research. Though, some of these fields do receive funds from the National Science Foundation, and as such, would be included.

However, why can’t every university that receives public funds be required to make research publications open to the public? Why can’t this be a condition of funding? It can be, and it can be quite easily. While I would love to see the president take charge of this issue, I would much rather prefer public institutions of higher learning make the first move. We can no longer allow research and scholarly publications to be locked behind a pay wall.

Scholars and researchers publish research that the very same university they work for then must pay to access. We need to stop allowing this to happen. Scholars need to step up and only publish in open access venues, and the greater public community needs to demand access.

It shouldn’t matter that the work is in science or the humanities; the goal of higher education should be to disseminate knowledge, and that can’t happen behind a pay wall.