Fighting To Free Knowledge Paid For By Taxpayers — And Winning

from the adding-a-pebble-to-the-cairn dept

One of the pioneers of open access is Michael Eisen, who helped found what has become the leading open access publisher, Public Library of Science, back in 2000. Since then, he’s been a pugnacious defender of the public’s right to read the research it has paid for, so perhaps it’s no surprise that he decided to take direct action in the following case involving NASA:

The Mars Curiosity rover has been a huge boon for NASA — tapping into the public’s fascination with space exploration and the search for life on other planets. Its landing was watched live by millions of people, and interest in the photos and videos it is collecting is so great, that NASA has had to relocate its servers to deal with the capacity.

So what does NASA do to reward this outpouring of public interest (not to mention to $2.5 billion taxpayer dollars that made it possible)? They publish the first papers to arise from the project behind a Science magazine’s paywall

It’s a great point: here was a fantastic opportunity to build on the evident excitement among the general public brought about by the Mars Rover project, and to deepen people’s interest in science, and yet NASA prevented that by stupidly locking up its papers behind a paywall. Eisen decided to do something about it:

This whole situation is even more absurd, because US copyright law explicitly says that all works of the federal government — of which these surely must be included — are not subject to copyright. So, in the interests of helping NASA and Science Magazine comply with US law, I am making copies of these papers freely available here

Unlike the tragic story of Aaron Swartz, who also believed that knowledge should be shared, this one has a happy ending:

As of today [27th September] these articles are now available to download from the JPL [Jet Propulsion Laboratory] website. I assume this was done in response to this post and the attention it received. (They were not there on the 26th when the press releases went out — I looked. And you can see from the PDFs that they weren’t downloaded from the Science website until the 27th.) Let’s hope that in the future that all NASA papers — and indeed the results of all government funded research — are made immediately freely available.

It’s great news that Eisen’s actions did not end in the usual legal threats from publishers, but in the release of the papers on the JPL site. However, as he points out, this isn’t about a few papers from NASA, however interesting they may be. This is about free access to all research that the public funds. Despite huge advances over the last decade, we’re still some way from achieving that, which makes Eisen’s latest victory for open access all the more welcome.

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Comments on “Fighting To Free Knowledge Paid For By Taxpayers — And Winning”

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Spaceman Spiff (profile) says:

Who to manage this output

The results of all publicly funded research is a significant volume of text and data. To be properly available, all of the results (mostly text + graphics) and all of the supporting data (complex data) must be posted and linked. I would advocate for the NSF (National Science Foundation) to be tasked (and funded) for this. Disclaimer: my father (an astro-geo physicist) was a director of the NSF a few decades ago. He passed the veil in 1991 (sigh).

Baldaur Regis (profile) says:

Re: Who to manage this output

A side note to the management of scientific papers – and one of the main arguments against open access (‘OA’) publishing – is peer-review: the process of weeding out ‘junk’ articles from ‘good’ articles.

Subscription-based publishers argue that OA publishers are merely check-cashing operations – no reviewing, just send ’em money and they’ll post anything you send online. OA publishers claim subscription-based publishers game the peer-review process by sending potentially sensational articles to sympathetic reviewers. Michael Eisen writes about this scientific knife fight.

Peer-review seems to be a fractal of a larger issue online: believability and reputation. Perhaps the science community would benefit from looking at reputation systems built into online commerce (e.g., eBay) and personal reviewing of the reviewers (e.g., upvoting/downvoting).

RonKaminsky (profile) says:

Re: Re: Who to manage this output

Subscription-based publishers argue that OA publishers are
merely check-cashing operations

They would, wouldn’t they now… Are you talking about the “expose” done by Science magazine (as seen on Slashdot)?

As many people on Slashdot noticed, this study only answers the question “Are there open-access science journals which are substandard?” and not the real question which is “Are there proportionally more substandard open-access journals compared to traditional ones?”. For example, it is well-known that some traditional journals have been mere fronts for special interests (e.g., pharmaceutical companies).

Your idea about copying reputation models from the Web is quite interesting, I have to admit I thought about that also.

Anonymous Coward says:

JPL employees are not government employees

A small faction that most probably do not know: JPLers are actually employed by CalTech, and are all contractors, not government employees. That may change the requirements for publishing to the public domain (would be contractual matter).

Good on them for doing the right thing, though.

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