Nation-wide movement seeks to open access to medical research

By Veronique Bergeron

In hopes of gaining access to publicly funded research materials, President Brian Rosenberg recently co-signed an open letter supporting the Open Access movement.The national battle against government censorship has patient advocates asking for open access to government-funded medical research; colleges and universities hoping to decrease their overhead on scientific database subscriptions; and in the end, leaves publishing companies wondering if they can stay in business.

The issue will come to a peak on Feb. 15, christened the National Day of Action for students around the country interested in open access to publicly-funded research.

Among the many issues on the agenda for the Day of Action is the Congressional passage of the Federal Research Public Access Act (FRPAA). The FRPAA was introduced last year by Senators John Cornyn and Joseph Lieberman and is currently awaiting reintroduction in Congress.

The FRPAA would essentially make all research funded by tax-payer dollars available to the public six months after initial publication. The obvious benefits of this are that individuals with ailing family and friends could research diseases and advances in medical technology. For research institutions, this would allow libraries to opt out of paying subscription fees for medical and technology journals.

“It’s important to Macalester because it’s important to all academic institutions,” Library Director Terri Fishel said. “It’s not just a small college or large research institution issue. This initiative directly affects student and faculty access to information. Access to information is what helps advance knowledge in all disciplines, and isn’t limited just to scientific information.”

While a few research journals in the Humanities and Social Sciences would be impacted by the passage of the FRPAA, Medical and Scientific Journals will take the biggest cuts.

Research papers currently become public domain 60 years after the death of the author, said Fishel. Under the auspice of the new law, publicly funded research would be available to the public six months after initial publication.

The day of action, Feb. 15, is also the fifth anniversary of the Budapest Open Access Initiative, which marked the beginning of what is now called the Open Access movement of which Macalester is a part.

Rosenberg recently signed a letter in favor of Open Access along with the presidents of 53 other liberal arts colleges. The letter, addressed to members of Congress, states:

“Liberal arts colleges are important components of our nation’s scientific and scholarly productivity. Studies have shown that our institutions are highly effective in producing graduates who go on to obtain Ph.D. degrees in the sciences. […] Adoption of the Federal Research Public Access Act will democratize access to research information funded by tax dollars.”

Very little competition exists among large publishers, Fishel said. “There’s a monopoly on the industry,” she said. “Journal subscription prices are increasing more than ten percent each year as a result. Open Access would bring down these escalating costs.”

According to Fishel, a large portion of the library’s budget goes towards journal subscriptions, though she could not disclose the exact percentage. “Subscription prices go up ten percent, and our budget has been cut every year for the past three years,” she said.

“This issue is particularly important because your generation is changing the way information is shared,” Fishel said. “Younger students are more interested in sharing than ever before. The way we publish information is changing.”

While Rosenberg and Fishel are convinced that Open Access is an important step in the way Macalester as an institution does research, several other institutions have taken a stance against the passage of the FRPAA.

A letter signed by administrators of ten different institutions cites that, “the free posting of unedited author manuscripts by government agencies threatens the integrity of the scientific record, potentially undermines the publisher peer review process, and is not a smart use of funds that could be better used for research.”

Among these institutions are the University of Chicago, SUNY Buffalo, UC Davis, and the University of Colorado Health Sciences Center.

The letter argues that all research receives funding from publishing houses, even government sponsored projects. Costs associated with publishing scholarly research include peer reviewing, editing, formatting, and printing costs. These costs are usually recouped through subscription sales. Any loss in funding, publishers argue, would jeopardize the peer-review process.

Fishel disagrees with these claims, stating that the six-month grace period between initial publication and general distribution would allow plenty of time for poor research to be removed from circulation.

According to Fishel, “The most important thing is equal access.”