Responding to an online petition posted to the White House’s We the People platform, the Obama administration issued a memorandum through its Office of Science and Technology Policy to mandate that federally funded scientific research be made available free of charge to the public within the year. The proposed policy would centralize and publicize the data sets, methodologies, results and conclusions from research funded via federal agencies at institutions with budgets greater than $100 million. Such measures are in line with the global call for further open access in science, demonstrating the Obama administration’s commitment to pushing the nation’s scientific efforts forward. This policy is beneficial to the public, scientists and science as a whole and finally lets taxpayers have access to the information they pay for.
Knowledge that springs from publicly funded research belongs to the taxpayers who pay for it, in the same sense that roads and parks do. However, the results published in scientific journals are currently inaccessible to the public. Hidden behind exorbitant pay walls, indecipherable language and scattered through hundreds of repositories, information is guarded instead of dispersed.
However, this policy could go further. The proposed action places a heavy emphasis on research in the sciences but fails to consider research in the humanities. Though the National Endowment for the Humanities, the nation’s largest federal agency that supports humanities research, favors and intends to follow the spirit of the proposed expansion of open access research, the policy would be stronger if it applied to all research.
In fact, open access to scientific research is a logical foundation and natural extension of the current trends toward making education and knowledge more open and available. Massive open online courses — where millions of interested people can receive world-class educations — would benefit from freely obtainable, high-quality content. Having direct access to research allows content creators to craft better teaching materials and gives others a way to use it to create new knowledge.
For the first time in the history of this country, the direct contents of federally funded research could be made available to anyone who wishes to see them. Removing the barriers to entry will only prove beneficial with time by fostering an open dialogue between researchers and the general public. While this proposal should be expanded to all research, including the humanities, it is an encouraging sign for a country struggling over questions of who owns information and knowledge.