U.S. House Science committee considering OA — in secret

The Association of American Universities yesterday posted a series of documents relating to a previously-unpublicized effort by the U.S. House Committee on Science and Technology. From the proposal, Roundtable on Public Access to Federal Research and Data:

… The House Science and Technology Committee, which has oversight of the federal civilian R&D enterprise, has a strong interest in [the question of public access]. The Committee seeks to convene a Roundtable of the key stakeholders to explore and develop an appropriate consensus regarding access to and preservation of federally funded research information that addresses the needs of all interested parties.

The progress of science and technology is very dependent on:

  1. The wide dissemination of research results and data from which new science is born;
  2. A peer review system that ensures the quality and integrity of scientific research results and analyses; and
  3. Preservation and access to the archive of historic and current research results.

The federal government is an important funder of basic and applied research in the United States. As a result of this stewardship, the government should provide resources and establish policies where appropriate to facilitate access to scientific data and publications and preserve an accessible record to both entities. In doing so, the government must take into account the important role of the private sector in this enterprise. …

To this end, a Roundtable forum is proposed to discuss these issues. … Participants will be asked to contribute their expertise and proposed solutions on the respective role of the federal government, libraries, institutional repositories and the scholarly publishers on the topics of access and preservation of the results of federally funded research. …

The total number of participants will be limited (to approximately 10) in order to facilitate the scheduling and productivity of the meetings. The initial roundtable meeting will be chaired by representatives of the House Science and Technology Committee with appropriate support and advice from staff in the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy. Roundtable participants will be selected by the S&T Committee based on their interest and expertise on the issue. …

To promote an open dialogue and exchange and to foster working toward a fair and balanced solution, participants will be at the table as knowledgeable individuals, but not as official representatives of their parent organizations. … Participants will be asked to refrain from public disclosure of Roundtable deliberations until a consensus report has been completed. …

The proposal is undated, but the status report states the roundtable was convened in “early summer 2009”.

The AAU documents also include a list of participants and biographies of the roundtable members.

From the status report, dated October 29, 2009:

… In-person meetings and conference calls have taken place over the summer and early fall, with the goal of producing a consensus report containing views and recommendations before the end of the year. The Roundtable report will be submitted to the HSTC and OSTP and subsequently will be made widely available to all stakeholders as well as the broader public. Members of the Roundtable will be available for comment regarding the report after its public release. …

Comment. Observers of American politics will know the central role of Congressional committees in policymaking. To date, two committees have given significant consideration to OA: the House Appropriations Committee, which passed the NIH mandate (and the earlier voluntary policy), and the House Judiciary Committee, whose chairman introduced the anti-public access Fair Copyright in Research Works Act and which held a hearing on the bill. (FRPAA was referred to the Senate Committee on Homeland Security and Government Affairs, but that committee has not held a hearing on that bill in either its current or previous form. In addition, questions about OA have occasionally been asked of executive branch officials and nominees in their oversight committees.) Noticeably absent from that list, as I’ve previously noted, are committees with jurisdiction over science or education — arguably the committees best suited to consider policies issues facing the research community and higher education. This effort changes that.

In addition, the involvement of the Executive Office of Science and Technology Policy is the first significant public engagement of the Obama White House with OA. (The Bush White House expressed mild concern about the NIH mandate, but ultimately signed a bill containing the measure.)

Accordingly, this process has the opportunity to shape discourse about public access in a major way. Unfortunately, since it’s secret, we don’t have much to go on until the recommendations are released and the participants’ vow of silence is lifted.

At first glance, the proposal itself is fairly even-handed. The biggest criticism I can level so far is that, while presuming increased access to be beneficial, it fails to ask the crucial question of what exactly are the benefits of access and the costs of lack of access. Nevertheless, the proposal counters two claims sometimes heard from (or implied by) opponents of OA: that greater access is not necessary (e.g. that benefits from OA would be negligible) and that government has no proper role in access and preservation.

There’s also the question of focus. This roundtable was tasked with considering access and preservation to publications and data from federally-funded research, rather than a narrower focus only on peer-reviewed article manuscripts. While other types of documents should be considered, that shouldn’t distract from a swift recommendation for a FRPAA-style mandate.

In tagging the documents for the OATP, Peter remarks, “Is the membership list balanced? Read it and decide for yourselves.” Of course, the theory behind this arrangement is that members will check their agendas at the door and work together as unbiased experts, so “balance” wouldn’t matter. We’ll only learn later (if ever) if practice followed theory in this case.

Update. Post title revised to more accurately reflect the essence of the matter.