Taxpayer-funded research should be available for all

June 7, 2012

Matt Cooper is president and CEO of the National Association of Graduate-Professional Students; Elizabeth Wiley is national president of the American Medical Student Association.

At graduations across the country, students are walking across the stage, receiving their diplomas and beginning the next chapter of their lives. These graduates are equipped with a wealth of new tools. However, nearly all are forced to leave behind one of the most important: their library card.

Students’ library cards are a passport to the specialized knowledge found in academic journal articles — covering medicine and math, computer science and chemistry, and many other fields. These articles contain the cutting edge of our understanding and capture the genius of what has come before. In no uncertain terms, access to journals provides critical knowledge and an up-to-date education for tomorrow’s doctors, researchers and entrepreneurs.

But should that access cease at graduation? Or would you rather a graduating medical student, perhaps your future doctor, be able to keep up with the latest advances? Would you rather an ambitious graduate student feel comfortable leaving the academy to found the next Google, knowing she still has access to the latest insight in her field and is able to build upon it?

Although the bulk of published research is publicly funded, the journals that publish such crucial resources are often prohibitively expensive. There are 15 academic disciplines for which the average journal costs more than $1,000 per year for a single subscription — far too expensive for an individual to afford.

What’s worse, many institutions — even those that maintain high-profile research programs — cannot afford access to all of the material their students and researchers need. For instance, the Faculty Advisory Council at Harvard University warned faculty members in April of the “untenable” costs of journal subscriptions.

The experience of not being able to get access to an article has become as common among students as paying hundreds of dollars for textbooks or having trouble getting into a class. As students graduate and begin careers outside the university, this problem worsens, and there is virtually no access at all.

Unlike many problems affecting students, this is an issue that President Obama could fix quickly.

With direct power over federal agencies that fund research, the president can mandate that articles resulting from our $60 billion annual investment in federal nondefense research grants be made freely available within six months.

The National Institutes of Health has had a similar, successful policy in place for four years. PubMed Central, the repository into which articles covered by the policy are placed, sees more than a million papers downloaded daily by more than half a million unique users, demonstrating the demand for this information.

Over the past two weeks, there has been a groundswell of support for such a presidential directive. Tens of thousands of people have signed a White House-hosted “We, the People” petition calling on the president to “require free access over the Internet to scientific journal articles resulting from taxpayer-funded research” — more than the 25,000 signatures required to receive a formal response from the White House.

If the president is serious about improving access to quality education, he should ensure that students and their professors have timely, open access to the fruits of our tax dollars — research that forms the basis of our understanding of the world, now and after graduation.

That’s why our organizations have joined many others — including the Wikimedia Foundation, Creative Commons and PatientsLikeMe — in calling on Obama to unlock publicly funded research. We must have better access to research findings — during the time we spend building our knowledge base as students, and, more importantly, when we put that knowledge to use after graduating.

The petition and more information are online at www.access2research.org .

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