Senator revising proposed research release mandate

 

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CHAMPAIGN — A state senator who has proposed making the results of publicly funded research more widely available is amending his legislation after receiving pushback from some in academia.

As currently written, the Open Access to Research Articles Act, introduced earlier this spring by state Sen. Daniel Biss, D-Evanston, requires state colleges and universities to establish policies that would require faculty to make available online, for free, their research articles.

Last week, Biss told The News-Gazette that he is working on an amendment to the bill which he believes will address concerns raised by faculty and others at the University of Illinois and other state universities.

Taxpayers fund billions of dollars of research through agencies such as the National Science Foundation, and in recent years the movement to make the results of that publicly funded research more widely available has gained momentum. Last year, petitions calling for more open access were submitted to the White House. Also, in 2012, many academics, led by a group of mathematicians, boycotted scholarly publisher Elsevier after the company initially supported the now-dead Research Works Act, legislation that would have prevented federal agencies from making more widely accessible scholarly articles developed with federally funded research.

"I think it's an important social justice issue, human rights issue and fiscal issue for the field of higher education," said Biss, a mathematician who was a professor at the University of Chicago before he entered state politics.

The bill's filing came in the wake of the January suicide of Internet prodigy and Chicago-area native Aaron Swartz, an open access advocate. After downloading millions of scholarly papers from digital archive JSTOR via the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Swartz was indicted by the federal government on computer hacking and fraud charges.

"You could pass a resolution (recognizing Swartz's advocacy for open access) that would look nice in a frame, but in the interest of someone so active and passionate in this area, it would mean more for the state he came from to echo a positive policy step to change the landscape of the issue," Biss said.

The UI supports open access, but people do have concerns about Biss' bill, as it stands now, said UI Library Dean Paula Kaufman, who has met with the senator to explain the university's perspective.

What's troubling about the bill, she said, is it has been perceived as a "mandate" for "anyone who wrote anything for a peer-reviewed publication," she said. There currently are no "opt-out" clauses which would allow faculty to forego submitting an article if they intended to submit it to a journal that does not accept for publication articles that may end up in an open access-type of database. And unlike similar legislation pending before Congress, the state bill requires faculty to submit their research findings immediately into the repository, rather than after a waiting period or embargo, she said.

There's also the issue of financial resources, Kaufman said. The UI currently has an open database called IDEALS — Illinois Digital Environment for Access to Learning and Scholarship — where scholars can voluntarily submit their papers and reports, but that system requires not only staff time but technical resources from the university to host the servers and more.

"This is well-intentioned effort," said UI Springfield philosophy Professor Peter Bolutc, who also is vice chairman of the University Senates Conference, a group of faculty leaders from all three campuses. "But it does not take into account the broad economic and copyright and patent realities," he said.

If passed by the General Assembly, the state directive would come into a "complicated environment," added Sarah Shreeves, coordinator of IDEALS and associate library professor at the UI.

In February, the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy announced federal agencies that spend more than $100 million annually on research must establish policies that promote free access to scientific data created with the help of federal dollars. Those agencies have six months from the announcement to respond.

"Trying to educate faculty and other researchers and graduate students about what these requirements will mean to them, and then to have state legislation come in, will make our job complicated," Shreeves said.

Also currently before Congress is legislation similar to the state bill. The Fair Access to Science and Technology Research Act of 2013, or FASTR, proposes all federal agencies develop public access policies on research conducted or funded by the agency.

That proposed legislation has been criticized by publishers. The Association of American Publishers, for example, called it "unnecessary and a waste of federal resources." The mandate would add to the costs of the agencies to provide open access to peer-reviewed scholarly research, the association said.

Biss admitted his decision to introduce state legislation was "a new mechanism for dealing with this" issue of open access. Some institutions of higher education across the country, such as Harvard University, have already adopted policies regarding open access to their peer-reviewed research articles, Biss noted.

The UI does not have such a policy. At least not as of now.

"This has been an active topic on this campus for years and has included everyone from library to legal experts," said Nicholas Burbules, chairman of the University Senates Conference. Opinions range from a "come one, come all," put-everything-online-for-free type of attitude to a much narrower view of open access, he said.

Urbana's Academic Senate in 2011 approved a nonbinding resolution supporting the deposit of scholarly work into IDEALS "in recognition of the common good." But it asked for faculty to voluntarily deposit their work; it was not mandatory.

Burbules said he has asked an ad hoc committee to prepare a response to send to Biss. And that report or response could lead to a larger, follow-up discussion on the campuses about the issues.

"The question is, what is the appropriate role of state government?" Biss said. The option of "shut up and sit down" is not possible, he said, because public institutions are funded by the state and their research should be available to taxpayers and anyone else who might be interested in them.

Biss said he is willing to make sure the amendment provides flexibility to campuses to set up their own policies, and he supported adding opt-out clauses as well as allowing for delayed publication in the open-access archive or database. He also said the bill is not to be interpreted as a mandate for each university to create an expensive information technology system for an online archive. He would like campuses to consider sharing resources.

It will be up to the campuses to figure out what works, he said.

"We want questions to be answered locally," Biss said.

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