The Whitehouse Open Access Policy Props Up the Gatekeepers

Months ago I signed one of those Whitehouse petitions. The petition asked the President to require that science articles that were paid for with government money be made freely available over the internet. In short, we paid for it and should be able to read it. Surprisingly, the administration actually responded! I even got an email. Huzzah for participatory democracy! But, sadly, the policy is not as good as I’d like. The policy only directs the larger federal funding agencies (more than $100 million budget) to create policies that would require free online access a full year after publication.

Michael Eisen is one scientist who has made me feel like I know a bit more about the process of science than I ever learned in school. I recommend his response about the new policy. Admittedly he’s far to one side of this debate but he’s not happy about it and taking heat for complaining about it. But he’s right — the policy is disappointing. It continues to privilege gatekeepers in the process of spreading knowledge. I want the enterprise of science to be as effective as possible (MOAR AWESOME SCIENCE FASTER PLEASE), and some gatekeepers just don’t help. The way science appears to me, as a non-scientist is:

  1. Some scientists find out something awesome (or really useful or maybe not terribly interesting to me but still useful to other scientists). Fairly often their work was funded by my — and your if you live in the United States — tax dollars.
  2. Some journal editor secretly decides if it is going to get reviewed and then a few reviewers and the editor decided if it will be published at all.
  3. A select few people (called journalists) get access to it early so they can write news stories about it.
  4. (Optional) A university press department puts out PR fluff about how absolutely fabulous the research is1.
  5. I read a news story about it. Sometimes the story isn’t written very well so I don’t understand what the research was about or I just want to know more about it or (sadly) it sounds like it’s being over-hyped and I don’t believe the reporter.
  6. I try to go find the paper (if the reporter has given me enough clues to find it as science news stories even on the internet rarely link to them directly). Most of the time I don’t have access.

Look at all those gatekeepers! I don’t have a lot to say about those pre-publication gatekeepers (the editors and reviewers) but certainly scientists like Eisen do. This new policy is really about those last few steps. Why don’t I have access to it when it’s news? Why are some citizens (journalists) specially privileged to tell me about what I paid for? The year embargo2 means most people will still only get their science news and understanding from possibly misleading news stories3. Not everyone is going to go read the science behind the story but I think science understanding and news reporting would improve if more people gave it a try.

Now, I can directly ask the researchers for a copy of the paper. Or I can go to twitter using a #ICanHazPDF tag and hope someone helps me out (so far 100% success with this). But I shouldn’t have to. I’m only getting used to this side-channel to journal access (and it’s not clear it’s legal). I still feel like I’m being intrusive when I do. Is a high school student newly enthusiastic about science and wondering what a real science paper looks like going to know how to do this or feel confident enough? Is a mom who read a scary news story about autism? She shouldn’t have to depend on a gatekeeper just to find out the media overhyped a story, yet again.

Whine, whine, not good enough, it’s better than nothing! No, it’s just not good enough. We paid for all this research. We should be able to read it. A year later is never for a non-scientist with a fleeting desire to read more about a piece of science news they just read. Hopefully the recently introduced FASTR legislation will be an improvement on this weaksauce policy. Write your Congress critters.


  1. I’m being a little unfair to university press offices which do sometimes put out great pieces on new research from their scientists. Sadly, though, some of the more over-hyped science news I see is obviously partially the fault of poor press releases.

  2. There’s no guarantee that some agencies won’t ask for longer periods as the policy specifically allows them to ask for more than twelve months.

  3. Yes, I’m also being a bit unfair to journalists and news organizations too but frankly there’s a lot of crap out there.

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