Saturday, April 14, 2012

Open Access and Publicly Funded Research: Good Thing Santorum Won't Be President

There is a stir in the academic community about the high cost of and limited access to journals. The Economist had a story this week about how profitable the academic publishing industry is. This reminded me of Rick Santorum's (thankfully) failed 2005 efforts to restrict public access to data collected by the National Weather Service. See details here and here. From this year's Politico story:

Will Rick Santorum’s lost crusade against the National Weather Service rain on his suddenly hot presidential campaign?

While a seemingly obscure issue next to abortion, gay marriage and tax cuts, weather forecasting inspired a defining controversy for the tail end of Santorum’s U.S. Senate career: his sponsorship of a 2005 bill aimed at hobbling the federal agency’s ability to compete with commercial forecasters like AccuWeather.

The bill went nowhere but brought Santorum a nationwide pasting from bloggers, weather enthusiasts, airline pilots and other critics. Some of them noted that executives from AccuWeather — a company based in State College, Pa., in Santorum's home state — had donated thousands of dollars to his campaigns over the years.

In fact, Santorum's failed legislation would have left the weather service intact, although with significantly reduced ability to distribute its information directly to the public.
Critics of the bill say the legislation reflects an outdated worldview — one that says government data should flow through profit-making middlemen, rather than being released freely to one and all.
“I think what you see out of Santorum — in particular the weather data thing — is that some private businesses should be anointed to make tons of money off the taxpayers,” said open-government advocate Carl Malamud. “That's a very 1970s, 1980s mind-set. That's a pre-Internet mindset.”
Malamud, who has pushed federal entities such as the Securities and Exchange Commission, Patent and Trademark Office, Smithsonian Institution and court system to make their data more freely available, called Santorum's bill “one of the stupidest things I've ever heard.”
From my perspective Santorum's attitude towards weather data is similar to publicly funded research across all fields getting locked up behind paywalls when published. It isn't a perfect parallel, but the current academic publishing market doesn't generate the same vitriolic reaction that Santorum's proposed legislation did.

For an example of an excellent open access journal see the Journal of Transportation and Land Use.
Kevin Grier compares academic publishing and NCAA basketball here.

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