Trump’s ‘paradigm shift’ may derail free access to online content for researchers

There is a dangerous ideology currently manifested in the US, but not limited to that country, that is a threat to the global project of enlightenment and modernity

Egypt’s ancient library at Alexandria (c.300 BC) once held all of the world’s knowledge in half a million scrolls, representing 30-70 per cent of the books then in existence.

Learned elites were the main beneficiaries back then. Today’s “transformative technologies” are making greater democracy possible through so-called “Open Access” (OA).

This offers an alternative to the monopolistic “paradigm” of major publishing houses and is supported by many governments and universities around the world.

Beneficiaries of the new model include students requiring digitalised e-products, patients needing access to cutting edge medical research, academics in emerging economies, self-publishing authors, and even journalists.

Crucially, the Bielefeld Academic Search Engine surpassed two major milestones last year: over 100 million documents (about 60 per cent open access) and 5,000 content providers. The "Holy Grail" of "full open access", though, has yet to be achieved.

Open Access pioneer, Peter Suber, was the principal drafter of the influential Budapest Open Access Initiative. According to Suber: "There are several reasons why 100 per cent OA has not yet been achieved. For authors, the main reason is lack of familiarity, and misunderstandings about OA. Despite great progress over the past two decades, most publishing scholars are still uninformed or misinformed about OA.

“Indeed, OA today depends to a large degree on understanding and incentives. Universities and funders are not yet fully using their influence over researchers to promote OA, for example through OA policies. Many are doing so, but many are not.

“For publishers, the main reason is fear of financial loss. Many of them are simply unaware that there are many OA business models, not just one.”

Rise of institutional repositories

Crucial to the open access revolution has been the establishment of institutional repositories. Today, these are populated by academic research ranging from special collections to postgraduate theses. Scholars are, however, allowed to embargo the uploading of their work. This allows them a valuable breathing space to publicise and write articles based on their own copyright.

In Ireland, a national web portal, called RIAN (path) was developed as part of a project by the seven Irish universities, and Dublin Institute of Technology (DIT), to provide a single point of access for Irish research output. It indexes all records from local repositories so when you click on a link it brings you to the item in the relevant local repository. All items are available through open access.

The site was launched in 2010 and has since grown to incorporate other institutes of technology, the Health Services Executive (HSE), and research institutes such as; the Marine Institute and Teagasc. RIAN is supported by a small maintenance budget, drawn from contributions made by the partner institutes, and managed by a board.

Heather Morrison, is the principal investigator of a major project in Canada entitled Sustaining the Knowledge Commons."My research area focuses on the economics of transition to OA, and from this perspective, it is well on its way towards becoming the default for scholarship.

“There is a dangerous ideology currently manifested in the US, but not limited to that country, that is a threat to the global project of enlightenment and modernity.”

Shifting paradigms

Prior to the election of Donald Trump, the US government allocated over $60 billion (€54bn) annually to scientists and academics who produced the content fuelling open access.

Now, however, the Office of Science and Technology Policy is part of the Executive Office of a President who seems to value “opinion” far more than empirical “facts”.

The world’s largest funding agency, the US National Institutes of Health (NIH), makes an annual $32 billion (€29bn) investment in biomedical research. Electronic versions of NIH-funded papers are then uploaded to the National Library of Medicine’s PubMed Central Institutional Repository.

President Trump's budget proposals, if approved by Congress, would see an 18 per cent cut to health and human services. Crucially, the latter includes the open access-supporting NIH.

Stevan Harnad is professor of web science at the University of Southampton. A self-styled "archivangelist", he authored the online Subversive Proposal calling for all scientists to archive their refereed research papers free for all on the internet.

According to Harnad: “Trump’s suppression of access to facts he does not like (for example, climate change, finances, and refugee suffering), is far more serious than whatever he might think about toll-free online access to published scientific research. This is, I suspect, too subtle a matter for him to care about one way or the other.

“He’ll probably tilt toward the wishes of the publishing industry lobby. However, the implications are bad for government employees, working on scientific questions, on which Trump wants to put his own spin. They may not be allowed to publish their findings, for example.”

The memo governing open (public) access in the US lies within the remit of the Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP), which currently has some 4.2 million articles in its domain. There are several possibilities as to how the Trump administration’s policies might impact upon it.

Firstly, research funding may be cut back in order to pay for higher priority policies and open access could, therefore, cease to be funded as a result. Secondly, the open access memo itself may be rescinded as part of Trump’s attempt to eradicate Obama’s legacy. Finally, the OSTP may be dissolved.

Climate change sceptic David E Wojick writes a weekly subscription newsletter entitled; Inside Public Access. He is, also, a former consultant to the US Department of Energy's Office of Scientific and Technological Information. According to Wojick: "There is going to be a lot of federal science website transitioning in the climate change area. Numerous agency websites reflect the Democrat's and Obama administration's policy position that humans are causing dangerous global warming and dramatic action must be taken to stop it. The Trump administration rejects this view, as do most Republicans, so many of these websites probably need to be either taken down or replaced."

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