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Fourth time lucky for US open-access bill?

A bill that requires free public access to articles resulting from federally funded research was introduced into the US Congress yesterday, delighting supporters of open access.

The bill, with the snappy acronym FASTR (fair access to science and technology research), would mandate research agencies to give the public access to papers no later than six months after their publication. At present, the US National Institutes of Health requires its research to be publicly accessible after 12 months, so the bill would halve that time frame and, by extending the policy to other agencies, approximately double the number of papers publicly available each year. Its Senate version was introduced by John Cornyn (Republican, Texas) and Ron Wyden (Democrat, Oregon); the House version [pdf] by Zoe Lofgren (Democrat, California), Mike Doyle (Democrat, Pennsylvania) and Kevin Yoder (Republican, Kansas).

A previous, similar bill, known as the Federal Research Public Access Act (FRPAA), has been introduced into Congress three times before — in May 2006, April 2009 and February 2012 — but never got to the voting stage. FASTR is slightly different, mainly because of an added focus that papers should be made open not just to read, but also to re-use (such as by text mining). Peter Suber, director of the Harvard Open Access Project in Cambridge, Massachusetts, has set up a website with notes on the new bill and its differences.

Although the FRPAA went nowhere, open-access advocates hope that FASTR will be fourth-time lucky. It’s being introduced in a different political climate, with agencies around the world pushing more strongly for public access than ever before.

Update: The Association of American Publishers, whose members include Elsevier and other science publishers,  has today come out strongly against FASTR, calling it “unnecessary and a waste of federal resources”

On a separate but parallel track, the White House is widely rumoured to be making its thoughts on open access public soon, although that rumour has been floating around since well before last year’s election. The US Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP) has asked for public views on the subject twice already, in December 2009 and again in November 2011 (the latter requestbecause the OSTP had been charged with improving public access to research under a re-authorization of the America COMPETES ACT in December 2010).

The OSTP put out an update [pdf] in March 2012, in which it explained that an inter-agency policy group, the Task Force on Public Access to Scholarly Publications, had been gathering information and discussing what to say. But deliberations were so slow that in May 2012 a group of four frustrated open-access advocates launched a petition to the White House, urging the president to act. That petition, which has gathered some 64,000 signatures and so requires an official response, remains unanswered.

One thing the FASTR bill does suggest is that sympathy in the United States seems to lie with the ‘green’ version of open access, whereby researchers make papers publicly available in repositories, often with a delay after publication, and publishers recoup their costs by continuing to charge subscriptions to libraries.

That is different from the situation in the United Kingdom, where government-funded science agencies have plumped for another idea: authors paying publishers up front to make their work free to read. Under that ‘gold’ policy, some cash is being taken out of the UK science budget to help authors pay for their publications, and UK libraries are continuing to pay subscriptions. The hope is that this extra-cost ‘transition’ period will be short as other countries leap to embrace the United Kingdom’s way of thinking, but it’s looking less likely that the United States and Europe (which wants open access in its 2014–20 research programme, Horizon 2020) will follow the United Kingdom’s lead. The UK policies will come in from 1 April this year.


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