UPDATE: The Office of Science and Technology Policy has directed Federal agencies to “develop a plan to support increased public access to the results of research funded by the Federal Government.” Publishers Weekly reports, though publishers came out strongly in opposition to the idea when Congress introduced it, the Obama Administration directive has been praised as “historic”.
Should research/writing funded by taxpayer dollars be available for free online? Congress thinks so. Publishers Weekly reports that Congress introduced The Fair Access to Science and Technology Research Act or “FASTR” on a bi-partisan(!) basis. If passed, the bill would require the public be provided “with online access to research manuscripts stemming from publicly-funded research no later than six months after publication in a peer-reviewed journal.”
The Association of American Publishers has criticized the bill as a reincarnation of the Federal Research Public Access Act which stalled in Congress last year; and argued the bill would end up costing taxpayers more in the end. Allan Adler, the AAP’s General Counsel and Vice President of Government Affairs said of FASTR, “This bill would waste so much taxpayers’ money at a time of budgetary crisis, squander federal employees’ time with busywork and require the creation and maintenance of otherwise-unneeded technology…all the while ignoring the fact that its demands are already being performed successfully by the private sector.”
This debate about whether written content should be accessible online in part or in full is not new. Google only recently settled an ongoing lawsuit with the Association of American Publishers; the search engine wanted to make books digitally accessible in search results. That said, the FASTR bill raises an interesting point about whether works that result from taxpayer funds should be free to the taxpayer since they/we have, ostensibly already paid for them.
On first thought, it would seem a no-brainer that federally-funded works should be freely available to the public, but on closer inspection, it’s a bit more complicated. Whether we’re talking federally-funded programs or community services, projects that receive federal funds usually require additional funding (public or private) to continue the work/service beyond the one-off. Same goes for the writer (and publisher) of federally-funded papers.
Moreover, research is by necessity ongoing, and with it being so difficult to win federal funds in the first place, there’s got to be a way for writers to move their work forward should they be unable to get more funding. Charging a fee (either via subscription to an industry journal or the price of a book) helps to support the work and the writer.