- Public Access: Bringing It All Back Home
With the emergence of policies calling for rapid, unfettered access to the results of federally funded research, the notion of academic and research libraries providing "public access" to information has taken on an important new meaning.
The traditional usage of the phrase referred to providing services to walk-in patrons. The new usage suggests the opportunity for anyone to have free, unrestricted, online access to final, peer-reviewed article manuscripts stemming from government-funded research. This is more than a simple change in definition. It reflects the larger transformation of information access in the time of the Internet. In addition, it is a tip-off that libraries are on the cusp of new opportunities and challenges in actively facilitating the research process.
The alternate meaning of public access burst onto the scene in 2004 with the announcement of a National Institutes of Health (NIH) policy proposal entitled, "Enhanced Public Access to NIH Research Information."1 However, this was not just another routine government agency announcement. In a fundamental way, it spoke to the advancement of science in the age of the Internet. The NIH director, Elias Zerhouni, personally played a pivotal role in the development of the policy, which was an outgrowth of years of community discussion, going back at least to a May 1999 proposal by then-NIH Director Harold Varmus.2
With the weight of NIH and a continually growing group of advocates supporting the idea, public access has steadily progressed since 2004. The concept of public access, with its practical implications for the future of scientific inquiry, has quickly spread beyond NIH—and beyond the United States. As this is being written,
• The U.S. Senate is considering legislation (the Federal Research Public Access Act, S. 2695) that would require public access to research from all major federal funding agencies.
• The European Commission's primary recommendation in its study of scientific publishing is that public access to publicly funded research results should be guaranteed. [End Page 1]
• The Canadian Institutes of Health Research is exploring similar ways to increase access to the discoveries made by their funded researchers and, in so doing, "stimulate the development of new health products that will benefit the health of Canadians as well as the global population."3
• In the United Kingdom, four of eight government research-funding councils have mandated open online availability of research outputs.
• In the Ukraine, the national parliament has recommended implementing a policy mandating immediate open access to the results of government-funded research.
• The Deutsche Forschungsgemeinschaft (German Research Foundation, DFG) announced that it expects the research results it funds "to be published and to be made available, where possible, digitally and on the Internet via open access."4
Why has the requirement for public access spread so quickly across so many geopolitical boundaries?
In the age of the Internet, at a time when governments are investing vast sums in research on increasingly complex scientific challenges, progress is slowed by business-as-usual policies. Because scientific discovery is cumulative—with new knowledge building on earlier findings—wide, barrier-free, and rapid sharing of research on the Internet will make the scientific process faster and more efficient. It will spur innovation and discovery not only by simply investing more money but also by enabling better and broader use of the research in which taxpayers have already invested.
Scientists routinely work across national boundaries. With public access (also referred to as "taxpayer access"), taxpayer returns are enhanced when the international, collaborative process of science becomes less restrictive and more open, when sharing is facilitated within and beyond nations' borders. This is true for research taking place anywhere in the world.
The benefits of Internet sharing of research results are intuitively obvious to many beyond the scientific community. As Pennsylvania Congressman Mike Doyle recently said of public access at a congressional hearing,
To be honest, I didn't know it wasn't already the law. …There's just no better way to put it—it's not right. The American taxpayer paid for [NIH] research—they'll pay nearly 30 billion dollars next year alone—and they are entitled to...