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National Science Board Task Force on Data Policies Discusses Public Access

Richard M. Jones
Number 128 - December 22, 2010  |  Search FYI  |   FYI Archives  |   Subscribe to FYI

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As part of a larger review of the federal government’s data policies, the National Science Board heard from three speakers at a meeting earlier this month about issues relating to public access to research results.  Reflecting other discussions on this matter, there was consensus that increasing the public’s access to research results is desirable, but a range of opinion on how best to accomplish it.

The National Science Board established a Task Force on Data Policies under its Committee on Strategy and Budget in early February.  Characterizing “the broad policy issues surrounding the management of scientific and engineering research data” as “critically important,” the Task Force was charged with “further defining the issues and outlining possible options to make the use of data more effective in meeting NSF’s [National Science Foundation] mission.”  The Task Force is chaired by Jose-Marie Griffiths of Bryant University.  A description of the Task Force activities, its members, a wide-ranging list of “possible data policy issues,” and a schedule calling for the drafting of a final report between February and May 2011 is available here.

The first speaker was John Vaughn, Executive Vice President of the American Association of Universities.  Vaughn was the chairman of the Scholarly Publishing Roundtable which produced a report on public access to scholarly publications for the House Science and Technology Committee.  The committee hoped that this roundtable would be able to find consensus in the issues surrounding public access despite what Vaughn characterized as decades of conflict.  The Roundtable’s participants were drawn from scientific publishers, librarians, library scientists, and the academic community.  Among them was Fred Dylla, the Executive Director and CEO of the American Institute of Physics. 

Vaughn summarized the recommendations of the 31-page final report by the Roundtable that was issued in January.  The Roundtable developed a set of five shared principles, eight recommendations, and a core recommendation, which is as follows:

“Each federal research funding agency should expeditiously but carefully develop and implement an explicit public access policy that brings about free public access to the results of the research that it funds as soon as possible after those results have been published in a peer‐reviewed journal.”

Vaughn explained that all but two of the eight Roundtable participants endorsed the report.  Reaction from the wider community was split.  Science Committee Chairman Bart Gordon (D-TN) was pleased with the report, Vaughn told the Board.  He said that the Office of Science and Technology Policy also reviewed questions surrounding public access.

Vaughn noted that there are notable examples where scientific publications are contributing to the outstanding problems with data management such as interoperability and archiving. He noted that many online journals allow authors to embed data sets behind figures or tables or as appended supplementary data. In addition, he observed that there are a class of journals that are dedicated to publishing extended data sets.

In concluding his presentation, Vaughn said the Board would be an ideal forum for continuing the discussion of the issues and plan implementation on public access.

The second presentation was by David Lipman of the National Library of Medicine.  Lipman discussed the eleven years of experience that the National Institutes of Health has had in developing public access mechanisms.  A voluntary effort initiated in 2005 as a result of a congressional directive had little compliance.  In 2008, a mandatory requirement was instituted that has resulted in a 70 percent compliance rate involving 660 journals.  As a result of this program, NIH knows how much it costs and how long it takes for there to be public access to a research journal article.  Lipman was enthusiastic about the NIH program, telling the Board that “publications are doing fine,” and later saying the NIH public access mandate had “no major impact” on publishers.

The third speaker was Bernard Schutz of the Max Planck Institute, who appeared via a video link.  He discussed the Berlin Declaration that defines and encourages an open access business model for publications, which now has 294 institutional signatories.  He explained that the Max Planck Society has “strong support for all forms of open access” because it increases the public visibility of research and enables comprehensive searches.  Cooperation will be required to convert to open access, Schutz told the Board, declaring that “science will not benefit if prestige journals fail . . . they play a key role in science.”  Regarding the economics of a conversion to open access, Schutz declared “funders will be the only source of money for paying the article charges.”  Saying that funding organizations can achieve public access by defining the need for it in their policies, Schutz said “the ball is in the funders’ court.”  Concluding his presentation, he told the Board, “NSF could make a big impact by deciding if open access was a public good and by taking steps to foster it.”

Following the presentation, Board members asked about the impacts open access would have on scholarly journals and scientific journals, on funding organizations, and on professional societies.  There was also discussion about all of the costs involved in publishing an article, and differences in opinion that researchers in various fields have about publishing platforms.  In concluding the meeting, committee chair Griffiths spoke of ideological, economic, behavioral, and other factors surrounding public access, saying it was a “perfect time” to consider the issues that were involved.

Richard M. Jones
Government Relations Division
American Institute of Physics