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Free Public Access to ScienceŚWill It Happen?
Posted On July 7, 2003
If Congressman Martin Sabo of Minnesota has his way, the results of federally funded research in science and medicine will be available freely to all. Rep. Sabo introduced a bill, Public Access to Science Act, HR 2613, on June 26, 2003. The proposed legislation states that copyright protection is not allowed for any work produced as a result of federally funded research. The legislation further states: "the Internet makes it possible for this information to be promptly available not only to every scientist and physician who could use it to further the public good, but to every person with access to the Internet at home, in school, or in a library."

Sabo estimated that the U. S. government spends $45 billion annually on scientific and medical research. These efforts are directed mostly at basic research that provides new knowledge and the basis for invention, innovation, new products, and improved clinical practice. The published literature is essential to the conduct of science and the scientists' needs to keep up-to-date in their own and related fields. Sabo said: "It is wrong when a breast cancer patient cannot access federally funded research data paid for by her hard-earned taxes. It is wrong when the family whose child has a rare disease must pay again for research data their tax dollars already paid for."

The legislation would preclude private publishers from claiming copyright on articles written about the results of research funded by the federal government. Scientific, technical, and medical publishers will need to find ways to finance the value-added services they provide, their distribution costs, and profits for their shareholders. The proposed legislation added that funding agencies entering into funding agreements: "should make every effort to develop and support mechanisms for making the published results of the research ... freely and easily available to the scientific community, the private sector, physicians and the public." This section implies that government agencies will need to include funding mechanisms for publication, such as page charges, in their contracts so that the goals of the legislation can be achieved.

At the same time as the bill was introduced, the Public Library of Science (PLoS) announced the launch of a public awareness campaign Ś including a television commercial, posters, and grassroots efforts Ś linked to the forthcoming debut of PLoS Biology in October 2003. PLoS Biology, a new peer-reviewed journal, is expected to compete with Nature, Science, and Cell. It will be available freely online and is being supported by leading scientists, including James Watson, Susan Lindquist, and E. O. Wilson. The journal will be financed by grants and page charges.

The Public Library of Science was founded in 2001 by Harold Varmus, Nobel Laureate and former director of the National Institutes of Health, Patrick Brown of Stanford University, and Michael Eisen of UC Berkeley. The PLoS mission "is to make the world's published scientific and medical literature a public resource, thereby making information available quickly and freely to anyone at anytime." The PLoS idea is to create an archive of science research results that would be available in perpetuity.

Passage of the Sabo bill would give significant support to PLoS and its mission. Dr. Varmus said: "Unlimited access to scientific research will speed discoveries and medical advances, as it has in the cases of the Human Genome Project and SARS. The speed at which these projects advanced science and, more importantly, saved lives, is testament to the equation that drives the Public Library of Science - multiply knowledge by access and you can really accelerate progress."

Eisen believes that members of the general public as well as scientists need access to scientific research. "Science works better, he says, when everybody sees what's going on - the accessibility leads to new breakthroughs, to people from disparate fields bringing new ideas to old-school techniques. Even if Sabo's bill doesn't get very far in Congress, Eisen believes that the prevailing mood in the scientific community is to embrace this openness." (Manjoo, Farhad. "The Free Research Movement," Salon, July 1, 2003.)

Derk Haank, former chairman of Elsevier Science, disagrees with the views of Eisen and Rep. Sabo. He said: "The material has to be available for the people who need it. And when I talk about people who need it, I am not talking about the general public, because we are talking here about scientific information, specialist information. People who want to use this and who need it are part of an institute. You don't do it as a self-proclaimed intellectual in your garden shed."(Kaser, Dick. "Ghost in a Bottle," Information Today, February 2002.)

But, the parents who need information about their child's disease or the woman who wants the latest research results on breast cancer may not be part of an institute. They may not have access to a research library that subscribes to thousands of STM titles.

The drive to maximize the availability of scientific research results is not confined to the U.S. It is international. The Organization of Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) established a working group in 2001 to study issues related to access to research information. The OECD has 30 member countries in Europe, Asia, Africa, North America, and Australia. The working group's final report, issued earlier this year, stated: "The findings and recommendations presented here are based on the central principle that publicly funded research data should be openly available to the maximum possible extent. . . Publicly funded research data are a public good, produced in the public interest." ("Promoting Access to Public research Data for Scientific, Economic, and Social Development," March 2003, The report also pointed out that open access and sharing provides greater returns to the pubic investment in research. These returns are manifested in patents, copyrights, invention, innovation, and new products.

The Sabo bill by itself will not guarantee free and open access to science and medical research results. The bill may motivate and encourage new ways of communicating research results, new business models, and new ways of financing publication of research results. The bill is not likely to pass both houses of Congress. Publishers, trade associations, and others interested in preserving the current system of publication will fight the legislation with "education" campaigns and money.

History reveals that easy access to information makes a difference. Open and free access to basic knowledge results in the creation of useful knowledge that contributes to international health and wealth. New models of communication will require collaboration among universities, publishers, professional societies, and government. While Congress is not likely to see the value of open access and sharing, many feel that the concept will succeed because the time is right.

Miriam A. Drake was professor emerita at the Georgia Institute of Technology Library.

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