White House orders agencies to open access to research

The White House issued a directive on Friday that intends to make research and digital scientific data funded by the federal government more accessible to the public.

The directive instructs agencies with more than $100 million in annual research and development expenditures to craft plans to make the results of federally funded research available to the public — for free — in digital format within 12 months after its original publication. John Holdren, director of the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy, signed the memorandum on Friday.

Holdren said the final policy was spurred, in part, by a petition posted on the White House's "We the People" website that called on the administration to make the published results of taxpayer-funded research available for free. The petition secured more than 65,000 signatures.

"We know that scientific research supported by the federal government spurs scientific breakthroughs and economic advances when research results are made available to innovators. Policies that mobilize these intellectual assets for re-use through broader access can accelerate scientific breakthroughs, increase innovation, and promote economic growth," Holdren writes in an online response to the petition. "That’s why the Obama administration is committed to ensuring that the results of federally-funded scientific research are made available to and useful for the public, industry, and the scientific community."

"Americans should have easy access to the results of research they help support," he added.

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Holdren's memo was cheered by public interest groups and lawmakers that have introduced legislation aimed at increasing access to federally funded research online.

Peter Suber, director of the Public Knowledge Open Access Project, called the directive "a big win for researchers, taxpayers, and everyone who depends on research for new medicines, useful technologies, or effective public policies."

In a statement, Rep. Mike Doyle (D-Pa.) lauded the directive and said it mirrored legislation he introduced last week.

“This directive is a big step toward reducing the exorbitant fees our university libraries have to pay to give their students access to academic journals," Doyle said. "At a time when many public universities and libraries nationwide must deal with severe budget cuts, this White House decision reflects a recognition that we must extend the reach of our taxpayer dollars to ensure that our students get a better education."

Doyle called for Congress to codify the directive's goals into law. Doyle's bill, the Fair Access to Science and Technology Research Act, was co-sponsored by Reps. Zoe Lofgren (D-Calif.) and Kevin Yoder (R-Kan.). Sens. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) and John Cornyn (R-Texas) introduced a companion bill in the Senate.

Wyden said the directive would help spur new innovation.

"The president’s commitment to remove the barriers to this federally funded research will increase the taxpayers return on their investment and will help create a platform for the next generation of science and technology breakthroughs," the Oregon Democrat said in a statement.

The issue gained more public awareness following the death of Internet activist and computer programmer Aaron Swartz, who took his own life last month. Swartz faced federal hacking charges for allegedly breaking into a computer network at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and downloading more than 4 million academic articles from JSTOR, a subscription-based online database of academic research. Many of the articles on JSTOR include results from research that is funded, in part, by the government.

Swartz's family said the aggressive hacking charges against the 26-year-old programmer contributed to his death. He faced up to 35 years in prison and a fine of up to $1 million.