Saturday, October 20, 2007

Would a bold politician speak up for an unprecedented public good?

Debates around open access to date have tended to focus on the pros and cons for researchers and their funders. Now that open access mandate policies have entered the political sphere, it may be timely to consider open access from a political perspective.

Politicians who support open access initiatives have an unparalleled opportunity to report to their constituents that they have supported an unprecedented public good in the form of open access.

One open access policy initiative currently under debate is the move to change the U.S. National Institutes of Health' Public Access Policy from a request, to a requirement, to make NIH-funded research publicly available after 12 months.

Here is an idea and opportunity for a bold politician: suggest an amendment requiring that results of NIH-funded research be made open access the moment they have completed peer review and are ready for publication.

Rationale: the public has already funded the research, and they have rights to the results. The purpose of public funding of medical research is to advance our understanding of medicine, so that we can, as quickly as possible, develop new ways to cure, treat, and prevent illness.

Picture one of your constituents who has cancer. Somone who is not wealthy, or living in a wealthy area; neither they, nor their medical care professionals, can afford to purchase all the latest scientific literature. Now picture an NIH-funded research study, the results of which could make a signficant difference in outcome for this constituent, perhaps years of healthy living. Whose rights take priority? The constituent, whose taxes have paid for this research, or the commercial publisher who wants to limit access until they have made sufficient profits?

The benefits of immediate OA are for everyone, not just those who are less wealthy, because of the nature of how scientific research advances. Each piece of research builds on our previous knowledge; the sooner results are shared, the faster our understanding progresses. As an illustration, it is through open sharing of research results that the human genome was mapped within a few years. Open sharing of all of our medical research has the potential to dramatically advance our understanding of diseases, and how to treat, cure, and prevent them.

When you report to your constituents on this matter, what do you want to say - that you supported and advanced an unprecedented public good, to make the results of publicly-funded medical research immediately available to all, or that you supported the suppression of medical research for the profits of a few?

The reference to an unprecedented public good refers to the Budapest Open Access Initiative, drafted by Peter Suber - excerpt: An old tradition and a new technology have converged to make possible an unprecedented public good. The old tradition is the willingness of scientists and scholars to publish the fruits of their research in scholarly journals without payment, for the sake of inquiry and knowledge. The new technology is the internet. The public good they make possible is the world-wide electronic distribution of the peer-reviewed journal literature and completely free and unrestricted access to it by all scientists, scholars, teachers, students, and other curious minds. Removing access barriers to this literature will accelerate research, enrich education, share the learning of the rich with the poor and the poor with the rich, make this literature as useful as it can be, and lay the foundation for uniting humanity in a common intellectual conversation and quest for knowledge.

The U.S. has a long tradition of openness in government information, and particularly a strong history as a leader in technology and access to the medical literature, as outlined in my blogpost, On PubMedCentral, by PubMedCentral. Would a strong policy on open access to medical research funded by the U.S. taxpayer just make sense?