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Science in Mind

Free, open access to taxpayer-funded studies in spotlight

The debate over “open access” to scientific research results has for years been an academic one, hashed out largely among university libraries and journal publishers. After all, free and unrestricted access to peer-reviewed scientific papers isn’t the sort of thing that typically attracts mainstream attention.

But the issue has been jolted into the spotlight recently, with a new White House policy aimed at making taxpayer-funded research freely available and the suicide of Internet activist Aaron Swartz, who worked to make such information free.

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Last week, the New England Journal of Medicine, a traditional subscription-based publisher that puts many of its articles behind a pay wall, published four perspective pieces on the issue.

The essays come down on all sides.

Depending on whom you ask, open access is a public good, a way to spur research, inevitable, or a major threat that is eroding the economic model that allows publishers to vet and present the most worthy scientific work.

The real answer is probably an amalgam, but what’s clear is that the push toward open access is marching forward.

Martin Frank of the American Physiological Society cites data in his New England Journal essay that illustrates the explosion: 20,702 articles were published in open-access journals in 2000, compared with 340,130 in 2011 — nearly a fifth of all articles published that year.

Last month, the White House science adviser, John Holdren, issued a memo instructing federal agencies that fund more than $100 million in research to create a mechanism to make published results free a year after publication.

It is an expansion of a policy already in place at the National Institutes of Health, the nation’s largest funder of biomedical research.

Carolyn Y. Johnson can be reached at cjohnson@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @carolynyjohnson.
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