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Mar 07 2013

Public access to government funded research and information

A lot of the most useful information that is generated these days comes courtesy of the government and is funded by taxpayers. This is particularly true about basic research, which is mostly funded by government agencies like the NIH and NSF. But quite often, private sector interests lobby lawmakers to allow them to take that information out of the public domain and make it proprietary and charge people huge amounts of money to gain access to that information, even though we have already paid for that information through our taxes. That was one of the things that infuriated Aaron Swartz and for which the justice department hounded him until his death.

For example, the National Weather Service produces (among other things) weather forecasts at its excellent website. Just type in your zip code and you get the forecast for your area. This service is provided free to all, which seems right since it is funded by all of us and this information is of vital importance to pilots, fishermen, farmers, and others.

But in 2005 Rick Santorum, then a US senator from Pennsylvania, introduced legislation actually forbidding the National Weather Service from giving this information away to the public. It was hardly a coincidence that the commercial for-profit AccuWeather company, that gets its data from the National Weather Service and then packages it and sells it for a profit to other people, was located in Pennsylvania, and that its employees were contributors to Santorum’s campaigns. If Santorum’s legislation had passed, consumers would have had to pay for the same information twice, once in the form of taxes to generate it, and then again to purchase the information form private companies. Fortunately, it failed.

Another example is the electronic filing of tax returns. Since the IRS prepares all the tax forms we have to fill out, in the internet age it would have been logical for them to create the software that would enable people to file their taxes electronically and for free. But instead of doing that, the IRS made a deliberate decision not to develop online filing software and gave that benefit to the private sector. It is true that in return for this gift to the private sector, those companies had to agree to provide free online filing to lower income people but the arrangement still does not make sense. It is inefficient for the IRA to make the forms and rules and regulations and then hand them over to someone else to prepare software that follows them. Errors are bound to creep in. Furthermore, why should people have to provide their important personal information to a private company in order to deal with the government? As a result, I refuse to use those services, preferring to do my taxes myself.

As Matt Yglesias points out, the current system creates an incentive for these companies to oppose tax simplification since difficult tax forms drive more people to purchase their software. As he says, “The only thing standing in the way of 15-minute taxes is the insidious lobbying clout of the tax preparation industry—and unfortunately it’s getting worse even as technology should be making it better.”

As another example, all legal proceedings should be made freely available to the public since the legal system is entirely publicly funded. If private companies wish, they can take that public information and add value to those documents by making them more accessible with search features and the like and charge people for the value added, but the information should not be allowed to become so difficult to obtain that it becomes effectively proprietary. Anyone should be able to easily access and use the raw information. But right now, the government does not provide easy access to all the legal rulings, leaving private companies to dominate the market and charge high fees for access.

But one front there is some progress. As I said before, most basic research is funded by government agencies. But some of the journals that publish the papers that report the results of the research charge huge subscription fees, thus denying access to all but the richest universities, and even they are complaining about the cost.

Reader Walter informs me that in response to an online petition, John Holdren, Assistant to the President for Science and Technology and Director of the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy, issued a statement saying that all government-funded research must be made free to read within 12 months after publication.

This is still not good enough, since it can take a year or more for a submitted article to be published in a journal, meaning that two years can elapse from the time of completion of the work to when the general public has access to it. In a fast-moving world that is nowhere near fast enough.

I think the future lies in open-source publishing, where papers are posted online as soon as the authors are ready to go public. The arXiv project out of Cornell University, where physicists and those in a few other fields post their preprints along with submitting them to journals is a good step forward. It was because of arXiv that people were able to respond so quickly to the faster-than-light neutrino story and the Higgs boson search.

7 comments

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  1. 1
    slc1

    The trouble with Prof. Singham’s proposal is that these postings occur before there is peer review of the articles. Although peer review is far from perfect, it appears that, like democracy, it is better then everything else that has been tried.

    A little history is, perhaps in order. Back in the 1960s during the Group Theory craze in elementary particle physics, the number of papers submitted to Physical Review Letters became so large that peer review had to be suspended as there were an insufficient number of reviewers who were sufficiently knowledgeable about the subject to conduct reviews in a timely manner. Of course, the result was a degradation of the quality of that publication because of the number of crap papers that were published. To make matters worse, the number of un-reviewed preprints that were distributed made following the progress in the field almost impossible because of the inability to separate the wheat from the chaff.

  2. 2
    Some Old Programmer

    I salute your spirit, Dr. Singham, in doing your own taxes. Some of us, however, have little choice but to buy tax preparation software every year. I’m a married man, stay-at-home parent, with a husband and 3 children. Because of the US government’s refusal to recognize our marriage, I have to prepare a minimum of 5 tax returns (a federal return for myself, as either single or head of household, a federal return for my husband as head of household, a joint state tax return that is reliant on a mock-up federal joint return, and two mock-up state tax returns so that state income taxes paid can be apportioned between us for next year’s federal returns). Needless to say I will be very happy when DOMA hits the dustbin.

  3. 3
    Jared A

    I have looked into open access publication of my science. In principle it is good: instead of using subscription fees to pay for the publication costs, it is paid for by upfront submission and publication fees. If your institution is poor enough, you will have your fees waved, so you can still publish in the journal as well as access it. This way, the same people are paying to maintain the journals (the rich universities in America and Europe), but now everyone can reap the benefits.

    The problem is that the publication fees are non negligible: on the order of $1k. Research groups might be able to afford these fees if we weren’t already paying for the expensive journal access in our overhead–but in order for switching from one mode to the other everyone would have to do it en masse. But there is no strong insentive to because the same institutions that can afford the fees also have the resources to get their papers into higher profile journals–and their university already has subscriptions to these journals. In other words, the activation barrier is huge. No one can act in their own best interest without taking a huge risk to undermine their own best interest.

    This reads like a textbook example of the public-good problem, and should be treated like it.. I support public policies that will help the transition to an open access model, because we can’t do it on our own.

  4. 4
    Mano Singham

    I think that good research and good researchers will rise to the top because the community will sift and separate the wheat from the chaff. So I don’t fear for the advancement of knowledge. The problem will be with systems that use the number of publications in peer-reviewed journals as proxy measures for the quality of researchers. Those systems will have to find new ways of assessing researchers,

  5. 5
    Mano Singham

    What you say about the barriers is true, but even the richest institutions’ libraries are being squeezed and the grumbling is getting really loud. The current system seems quite unstable and so shifting en masse is not as unthinkable as it once was.

  6. 6
    Brony

    So I have a different kind of reason for wanting access to literature that my taxes fund. I want to be able to cutting-edge read science that I can apply to my life NOW, and I believe that I am owed it.

    I have Tourettes Syndrome, associated ADHD, and probably OCD (not specifically diagnosed). They cost me a science career. I choose to leave because the end was obvious in a field where 100hour work weeks, excess degree holders, and dwindling jobs and funding are common. My work was good but progress was slower than it was for others. From my perspective ADA claims would have been met with institutional resentment. It burns when one can interpret themselves as an evolutionary reject.

    But with my background I am perfectly capable of understanding the latest neurobiology literature. I want it. My condition interestingly comes with cognitive enhancements and I have been using the literature that exists to try to define, harness and efficiently practice them.

    But there are drawbacks too. The ADHD included an element of mental chaos that made my work proceed less efficiently than others. In addition there are social deficits that are still poorly defined and they do make my life harder. Being able to read about the latest discoveries and put them into the context of what I know of neurobiology and psychology actually helps me come up with coping strategies.

    But I can’t do that without the papers and I helped bring them into existence with my money.

  7. 7
    slc1

    The problem will be with systems that use the number of publications in peer-reviewed journals as proxy measures for the quality of researchers. Those systems will have to find new ways of assessing researchers,

    I agree. As I understand it, another proxy measure that many institutions are using today is the number of times a paper is cited by other publications in the peer reviewed literature. However, this isn’t foolproof either. Example, the 1964 papers by Peter Higgs which proposed the Higgs boson. Even though my PhD thesis adviser was one of his collaborators, I don’t recall the papers causing any particular excitement at the time, certainly compared to the paper on current algebras by Steven Adler. This was because quantum field theory was in something of a hiatus due to its apparent inapplicability to strong interaction physics (see dispersion theory, bootstrap dynamics, Regge poles, current algebras, Veneziano Model, SU(6), etc.). Now, Prof. Higgs is considered a leading candidate for a Nobel prize (I only hope he lives long enough to get the much deserved award; one can only remember Rosalind Franklin who died before the Nobel award for the discovery of the structure of DNA).

    As for good research rising to the top, that may be true in the long run but in the short run, there will be far too much noise in the system if peer review is abandoned.

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