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Obama policy requires data accessibility

Citizens will be given easier access to the results of government-funded science research

The Obama administration announced a new policy last month to increase public access to federally financed research, including University research funded by the National Science Foundation and other federal agencies. The policy requires government-funded agencies that spend more than $100 million a year to make their data and research results Internet-accessible to the public within one year of publication, according to the Chronicle of Higher Education.

The policy is a step in the right direction, said Barry Connors, professor of neuroscience and chair of the department.

“Biologists are probably wondering why that didn’t happen much sooner,” he said. “Communicating the results of research is critical to the enterprise of science. It’s also the right thing to do.”

“The Obama administration agrees that citizens deserve easy access to the results of research their tax dollars have paid for,” said John P. Holdren, director of the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy, in a memorandum cited by the Chronicle. He added that when research is made public, innovators are better able to advance fields like health and technology.

The policy “will likely lead to lower journal subscription costs for university libraries,” said Associate Dean of Biology Edward Hawrot. “Some of the for-profit journals may be forced to change their practices, and new models of dissemination of research results may emerge.”

The National Institutes of Health funds a significant portion of University research, Connors said. The agency adopted the policy almost five years ago.

The NSF — the second-largest agency for funding scientific research after the NIH ­— “will consider exclusivity periods shorter than the 12-month standard in the White House directive, as well as trade-offs involving data-sharing and considerations of publishers’ financial sustainability,” the Chronicle reported.

“For those researchers funded by  (the) NIH, there will likely be fairly modest changes, if any,” Hawrot said. “Those researchers funded by other agencies will have to adjust to the new policy, and this may affect where and how they publish their scientific results.”

Connors said he believes non-researchers will benefit from the availability of new studies. “If someone close to you contracts a dread illness, you want to read everything there is to know about it,” he said. Often, the most current research is only accessible through scientific publications that may be very difficult for the general public to access, he added. “Open-access policies dramatically improve the situation,” Connors said.

The new policy may be especially beneficial to researchers in underdeveloped countries, whose access to journals may be limited due to “high subscription costs,” Hawrot said.

But the drawbacks are more complicated than they may appear. “With any change, there is initial confusion and guidance will be needed,” Hawrot said. “There is considerable nuance as to the effect on the journals because they are not homogenous in their financial models.”

Researchers may also face challenges related to publishing costs — work might eventually be financed by researchers instead of taxpayer dollars, the Chronicle reported.

Connors said this means researchers might have to fund journals through money that comes out of their grants, which do not budget money for publication. He added that publishing a single scientific paper costs around $4,000, according to one estimate.

Journals’ profits will likely be negatively affected by the limited exclusivity rights because they will lose subscription revenue, Connors said.

Researchers and publishers have been engaged in an ongoing debate on whether journals should institute open-access policies. Publishing companies resisted in 2008 when the NIH proposed to make all of the research it funded publicly accessible after one year, though the agency instituted its policy six months later, according to the Chronicle.

The Chronicle reported that the new White House initiative will allow journals to “seek adjustments” to the policy if it causes them financial distress.


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