FASTR Moves To Tear Down Science Research Paywall

It’s awesome that the Obama administration is supporting so much research into renewable energy (like this and this) and other technologies of the future – and that the president wants to do even more.

It sucks that much of the taxpayer-backed research done in the U.S. gets stashed behind paywalls. It sucks for scientists who want to build upon the research in their own work and for innovators and entrepreneurs who might be able to turn the research into new products or services, and it sucks for journalists who want to learn from that research to better serve their readers but don’t have the resources to pay for access.


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There’s potentially good news, though: A bipartisan effort is under way in Washington to put a crack in the research paywall.

U.S. Sens. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) and John Cornyn (R-Texas) this past week introduced the Fair Access to Science and Technology Research Act, while Reps.  Zoe Lofgren (D-Calif.), Mike Doyle (D-Penn.) and Kevin Yoder (R-Kans.) introduced the same bill in the House. They’re calling it “FASTR,” and this, they say, is what it will do:

The FASTR act puts a time limit on … exclusivity, making federally funded research papers available on a public database no more than six months after publication in a peer reviewed journal. Some 90,000 federally funded research papers are published each year and timely access to the findings will encourage private investment into new technologies and bring new products and services to the market more quickly.

You might wonder, who could be against such a move?

Publishers who make money off the work that you and I finance, that’s who.

The publishers claim that FASTR would create some vast new federal bureaucracy by requiring researchers to submit an electronic copy of the final manuscript to the agency that backed it, to preserve that manuscript, and to require that the manuscript be available to the public.

“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,” Allan Adler, a lobbyist for the Association of American  Publishers, said in a statement.

Wyden and Cornyn concede there would be some cost, but point to a study (available!) that shows that faster, wider dissemination of research could be an economic boon, “worth about eight times the costs.” Plus, the idea that a Texas Republican like Cornyn would be looking to create more work for federal employees is kind of laughable, no?

The big money that really appears to be at stake here is that which goes into publishers’ pockets.

Think Progress noted in its story about FASTR that Elsevier, the largest for-profit academic publisher, “made $1.1 billion in profits in 2011 with profit margin of around 35 percent.”

Powerful as the publishers might be with their lobbyists, the good news here is that many universities are on the side of changing this system. An alliance of academic and research libraries called SPARC called FASTR “a giant step forward in making sure that the crucial information contained in these articles can be freely accessed and fully used by all members of the public.”

Pete Danko is a writer and editor based in Portland, Oregon. His work has appeared in Breaking Energy, National Geographic's Energy Blog, The New York Times, San Francisco Chronicle and elsewhere.

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