Open Access Petition — Opening Access to Research or Courting Disaster? UPDATED

Here is the text of the petition:


Require free access over the Internet to scientific journal articles arising from taxpayer-funded research.

We believe in the power of the Internet to foster innovation, research, and education. Requiring the published results of taxpayer-funded research to be posted on the Internet in human and machine readable form would provide access to patients and caregivers, students and their teachers, researchers, entrepreneurs, and other taxpayers who paid for the research. Expanding access would speed the research process and increase the return on our investment in scientific research.

The highly successful Public Access Policy of the National Institutes of Health proves that this can be done without disrupting the research process, and we urge President Obama to act now to implement open access policies for all federal agencies that fund scientific research.

Petitions | The White House.

To sign, or not to sign? that is the question. But isn’t the answer obvious? I don’t think it is.

You might get immediate results by promising too much, but you’ll reap what you sow.  The question of whether to sign the petition turns on whether the petition is over-promising. I think it’s at the very least over-simplifying things.

There are two claims that I think have crossed the line into over-promising. First:

[Open Access]  would provide access to patients and caregivers, students and their teachers, researchers, entrepreneurs, and other taxpayers who paid for the research.

Well, in one sense of the word ‘access’ this is obviously true. Provided internet access, non-academics would obviously be able to access research that’s available via Open Access. But given the specialized character of most research today, true accessibility — in the sense of being able to understand the research — will still be available only to the few. If we want to argue for Open Access by claiming that taxpayers deserve access to research they’ve paid for, then we’ll have to take this point seriously.


Expanding access would speed the research process and increase the return on our investment in scientific research.

I don’t think it’s over-promising to claim that Open Access will speed research. I think it probably will do so, although I also think it’s likely to lead to some research moving in the direction of breadth over depth — something that anyone who values only specialization would interpret as impeding the pace of research. But the claim that Open Access will increase the return on our investment in science is really quite dangerous. It’s not just a matter of showing me the proof for this claim (which I don’t think exists). If Open Access is mandated on these grounds, it will only be a matter of time before Congress demands that we show them the money.

Here’s a Storified discussion of the issue on Twitter.

I support the idea of Open Access. I try to make my research accessible both on UNT’s institutional repository and on my own site. I also strive hard to make sure my research is connected with those who might benefit from it. I think all researchers should do the same. But I won’t MAY WELL sign this petition AFTER ALL.


So, as I said in the comments, below, I’ve be reconsidering my decision not to sign the petition. Here’s why.

First, simply from a pragmatic point of view, I agree with Stephen that it’s simply too late to reword the petition. I went to the We the People site yesterday, and I saw at least three (maybe more) petitions asking for an apology for calling Nazi death camps in Poland ‘Polish death camps’. This obviously deserves an apology, but it’s less likely to get one via petition simply because there’s more than one.

Second, I may be letting the perfect (or the better) be the enemy of the good in this case. That is, just because I would’ve worded the petition differently, does that mean I shouldn’t sign it? I actually think that I’ve got a different idea of what it means to promise a return on the taxpayers’ investments in research — an idea that entails addressing to specific societal problems. My idea has a lot less to do with money and a lot more to do with the value of research (measured in terms of something like broader impact). Making research more easily available can’t guarantee that sort of impact. But maybe it can help.

Finally, I’ve done some reading around in the OA community and have been interacting with several members of that community on Twitter. One thing that’s really interesting to me is that they disagree with each other. A lot. The most recent evidence for this was contained in today’s SPARC Open Access Newsletter. Peter Suber goes through the history of libre OA in some detail, and there’s an interesting point at which he says, basically, we don’t all agree about this. He then links to all sorts of dissenting blogs. I really appreciated that. Even more, though, I appreciate the fact that I can’t seem to find anyone in the OA community who’s not on board with the petition. If thoughtful, intelligent people who often disagree with one another can all get behind something and work together for the same end, then there’s probably something worthy of support there.

So, I’ll likely sign the petition, despite my reservations. And I’m happy to have been going through this period of working through my thoughts on the matter. Thanks to all who helped.


This entry was posted in Accountability, Broader Impacts, Future of the University, institutionalizing interdisciplinarity, Libraries, Metrics, Open Access, Science and technology ramifications, STEM Policy, US Science Agencies. Bookmark the permalink.

8 Responses to Open Access Petition — Opening Access to Research or Courting Disaster? UPDATED

  1. I think it is unfair to expect a petition limited to 800 characters to lay out the nuances of an issue that is widely seen, even by many of its proponents, as complex and multifaceted.

    I think if you had asked the organisers (why not post a comment on their blog?), they would have agreed with you that open access by itself is completely insufficient for making the academic literature fully accessible, i.e. intelligible. It is a step along the way, no more. But it is an important step in my opinion (as I wrote in the Guardian) — and in that of other people (see this piece by Alice Bell and comment thread). My hope it that the very fact of access will stimulate an appetite within the public that will create demand from them of a literature that they can understand. It could provide a healthy pressure on scientists to think a bit more about how to talk with the public about what they do.

    On the second point of ‘return on investment’, again I don’t think anyone seriously considers this to mean some sort of percentage financial return on a particular spend. As you and I both know, the societal benefits of scientific investment are complex; e.g. see my attempted analysis here from the Science is Vital campaign). However, I hope we agree that they are largely positive. And if you take the point that open access should speed research, it seems likely that it will also enhance the value derived from it (widely defined, of course).

    Personally, I would also tend to me more pragmatic about these things. The petition gets the Obama administration to face the issue and, hopefully, to continue discussions that have already happened. Once in the room the petitioners can make a more nuanced case (which you could help to inform). I would expect them to face tough questions from politicians and hope they have answers. It’s your call of course, but I’d ask you to reconsider your decision not to sign.

  2. Thanks for the comment, Stephen. I agree that Open Access is an important step toward the kind of relationship between science and society that will benefit both.

    I also agree that expecting a petition of 800 characters to explain every nuance of the situation would be unreasonable. I don’t expect that. I do expect that the petition not write a check that OA policies can’t cash. Don’t promise that OA policies will increase ROI — that’s dangerous, in my opinion. Will overpromising get you what you want? It often does. But it also erodes trust.

    Instead, we should craft the petition in a way that will influence not only the Obama Administration, but also the policies to be developed.

    I’d sign something like this:


    Require free, timely access over the Internet to journal articles arising from taxpayer-funded research.

    The Internet should foster responsible innovation. Yet, like the governor on an engine, current publishing models that hide research behind pay walls limit the pace of research and inhibit progress. Requiring the published results of taxpayer-funded research to be posted on the Internet in human and machine readable form can speed research and help us find “undiscovered discoveries” in research that has already been performed. Requiring such openness can also encourage science to be more accountable to society.

    The Public Access Policy of the National Institutes of Health proves that such policies can be implemented without disrupting the publishing process. We urge President Obama to implement an open access policy for all federal agencies that fund scientific research.

  3. How is “Requiring the published results of taxpayer-funded research to be posted on the Internet in human and machine readable form can speed research and help us find “undiscovered discoveries” in research that has already been performed.” not promising some kind of return on investment?

    I think the differences between our positions are one of nuance — and that you are being too rigid in your interpretation of the petition.

    I guess I am also being more pragmatic; the fact it is the petition is out there and not now subject to rewording. I am willing to work with an imperfect petition wording since I see that the benefits of scoring 25k signatures are part of a longer, more complex process. It raises the publicity of the issue and puts the Obama administration under pressure to respond. At this next stage, we will have more than 800 characters to work with and to lay out the pro-OA argument with all the nuance necessary. If David Willetts can grasp the issue, I don’t see why the US president shouldn’t.

  4. Well the short answer to your first question is the little wiggle word ‘can’ — that’s different from ‘would’, which implies ‘will’. The longer answer is that I am suggesting OA can improve research, which is different from improving the ROI in research. ROI implies return FOR SOCIETY, which is not guaranteed by just by improving the research. That research must be connected with society in a way that I think OA can help achieve.

    Again, I don’t think it’s a case of forcing Obama to get it. I think his administration is already on board with some version of OA, or at least leaning that way. The point of the petition would be to give them an ‘excuse’ to make an official statement on the issue. Maybe the wording doesn’t count, as you suggest. I think, however, that when one enters into the policy arena (as those are who have put forth the petition, and as are those who sign it), one ought to choose one’s words wisely. Nuanced differences in opinion can make important differences in outcomes.

    You are right, though — it’s too late to change the wording on the petition. I’ll continue to support OA, despite not wanting to sign this petition. If, as I suspect, it receives enough signatures, then I hope things transpire as you suggest.

  5. How is the accessibility of publicly funded research results currently valued?

    Would more OA-published research improve that accessibility/increase its value?

    If yes, I think the return on investment has been increased.

  6. Thanks, David. I appreciate the simplicity of your calculation of ROI. Steve Hitchcock (@stevehit) sent me a link to this work of Houghton: It’s slightly more complicated.

    Both your comment and the paper have made me rethink my own conception of ROI. Maybe I’m thinking of it in a way that’s too strict, if not restricted: as solutions to societal problems. If we restrict ROI literally to a cost-benefit analysis like Houghton, or if we think of it as increasing the value of the research, as you suggest, then there’s some reason to think OA may increase ROI.

    So, I’m still considering things.

    Incidentally, Nature News has an article out on the petition: Interesting that the petition is being criticized by some OA advocates as not going far enough. But here, I’d tend to take the kind of position that Stephen has suggested: the petition is merely a means to an end: to get the Whitehouse to make a statement on OA as Congress is considering FRPAA.

    Maybe my objection comes down to saying I would’ve worded the petition differently. Is that a good reason for me not to sign it? Or is Stephen right?

    As I say, I’m still considering things ….

    • It’s probably worth noting that Mike Eisen’s comments in the Nature piece are taken a little out of context. Yes Mike is critical that we take what he sees as baby steps but he is still four-square behind the petition and has been pushing it very strongly. Other criticisms, like yours, have centred on wording being insufficiently specific, or too general, so to me that means things are about right.

      I think the question as to ROI is probably a vexed one. I would see this as proven. Houghten’s studies, the RIN studies, all show savings on publication with reasonable assumptions for both Green and Gold routes to public access, sometimes with transitional costs – so those savings already constitute ROI in my book.

      On top of that we’ve got the much harder question of pinning down what the additional gains are in terms of added access. There are estimates of the costs of lack of access to SMEs and there are good economic studies of other forms of open knowledge sharing that show significant increases on ROI when things are open but these are either a) difficult to pin down or b) don’t relate directly to scholarly comms. But I would argue that there is a strong potential upside and no real downside risk and so the case for ROI is strong.

      Finally there is the intangibles.You’ve argued that just granting access isn’t enough – and I’d agree – but there is signficant demonstrated use by people who are not professional academics when access is provided. This primarily comes from patient communities but there is also demonstrated demand from those interested in the environment and other issues and interest groups. So while additional engagement and interpretation is important there is still an upside again – with no downside risk I can see.

      • Thanks, Cameron. Developing ways to account for such “intangible returns” is something we’re quite interested in doing here at CSID, coming off our work on ex ante impact assessment as part of peer review. I suspect we’ve much to discuss and am hoping to make it to altmetrics12 so we might do so. ;-)

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