Easy as 123?

A colleague recently suggested that I consider why it was that two groups with putatively similar interests – the Association of American Universities (AAU) and the Association of Public and Land-grant Universities (APLU) – seemed to take different positions in regard to the Federal Research Public Access Act (S. 1373 and H.R. 5037), which was the subject of House committee hearings two weeks ago.

The difference seems rather slight at first.  David Schulenberger of APLU testified at the hearings and supported the adoption of FRPAA.  The AAU, on the other hand, sent a letter to the Committee that was holding the hearing, for inclusion in the hearing record, but never actually mentioned FRPAA.  Instead the letter urges passage in the Senate of the America COMPETES Reauthorization bill, which has already passed the House as H.R. 5325.  The letter, like Schulenberger’s testimony, expresses support for rapid public access to federally-funded research, but it supports the “collaborative framework” that was agreed upon earlier in the year by the “Scholarly Publishing Roundtable” and which, according to the letter, would be fostered by section 123 of America COMPETES.  So it is worthwhile to look at how the two bills differ.

The major difference is in immediacy of impact.  FRPAA is a mandate which federal funding agencies would be required to implement.  Section 123 of America COMPETES contains no such mandate; instead, it would create an “Inter-agency Public Access Committee” with a charge to “coordinate the development or designation of uniform standards” and “solicit input and recommendations” on “access to the results of federally funded research.”  Section 123 also includes precatory language about “the role that scientific publishers play in the peer review process.”  In this language I hear echoes of the exaggerated claims about the contribution from publishers that were made at the hearing itself.

I was interested to discover that other librarians seem also to read America COMPETES as something of a delaying tactic, or even as a rearguard effort to undermine public access initiatives already underway.  In a joint letter from the Medical Library Association and the Association of Academic Health Sciences Libraries, those two organizations express pleasure at the language about public access included in section 123 but also some concern.  Specifically they want a clause inserted that would prevent the proposed inter-agency committee from interfering with the current NIH Public Access Policy, which they see as a well-function model for public access, not a system in need of additional oversight.  These two organizations also worry that the language about peer-review overstates the impact that public access has on that system.  Whatever the flaws in peer review, and they are many, public access programs like that of the NIH or those proposed under FRPAA have no significant impact on the process; the MLA and AAHSL want to remind Congress of that fact.

My concern that support of Section 123 was a stalking horse to undercut FRPAA was strengthened a bit when I saw a recent report on IP activities from the AAU.  In that report what seemed implicit was made explicit; AAU, through its Scholarly Publishing Roundtable, would support FRPAA only with changes that track America COMPETES in terms of the inter-agency coordination but also would include a longer embargo period (even longer than the 12 months specified in the NIH policy) and mandate “formal” consultation with “all stakeholders.”  This last change presumably means that funding agencies could not attach requirements to their grants without first talking to publishers (and by the way, is the taxpaying public considered a stakeholder here?).  These stipulations leave me wondering to what degree AAU’s support for America COMPETES is a subtle attempt to oppose FRPAA under the guise of endorsing its goals but seeking conditions that would undermine the path to achieving them.

4 thoughts on “Easy as 123?”

  1. Not being familiar with the constituents of the AAU, to what degree are the members’ institutions supported by big business? What is the underlying reason why the association is opposed to FRPAA?

  2. The members of the AAU are all research universities, so they have the expected ties to industry and receive both public and private research money. I do not think that is the source of the opposition or, better, lukewarm support. I am inclined to believe that it is a sincere but misguided concern about all the whining from publishers over FRPAA.

  3. I was a member of the Roundtable. I signed its report, and I have always viewed that report as being consistent with FRPAA, which I endorse. Here is the opening recommendation of the Roundtable Report.

    “The Roundtable’s core recommendation is:
    Each federal research funding agency should expeditiously but carefully develop and implement an explicit public access policy that brings about free public access to the results of the research that it funds as soon as possible after those results have been published in a peer‐reviewed journal.”

    I don’t doubt that Kevin is correct in thinking that there folks out there who would use the America COMPETES language to undercut FRPAA or some other expeditious way of achieving widespread, reliable, interoperable access to federally funded research. And I can’t speak for my colleagues on the Roundtable (which, by the way, is an ad hoc entity, not an entity of AAU.) But for me, the details of the differences are much less important than the goal of getting the work into the hands of the public who pays for its production. If FRPAA and America COMPETES are materially different, I’ll take the one that gets us farther, faster.

    Paul Courant

  4. As another member of the Roundtable I’m happy to see Paul’s comment. Personally, I don’t think FRPAA is perfect legislation, but it’s certainly not incompatible with the America COMPETES language. As another of the Roundtable members put it, the latter focuses on HOW the federal government should go about establishing public access policies, while the former focuses on WHAT the policy should be. The Roundtable report emphasizes flexibility, interoperability, and the need to involve all stakeholders in policy development — and of course the taxpaying public is considered a stakeholder!

    Regarding the MLA/AAHSL letter, I addressed that issue in a post a couple of weeks ago here: http://tscott.typepad.com/tsp/2010/07/mlaaahsl-america-competes.html There is no “rearguard action” to undermine existing policies and the language that the letter recommends has indeed been added to the draft legislation.

    What troubles me the most about this post, though, is the implicit assumption that any deviation from FRPAA is somehow intended to slow down, delay or otherwise undercut the achievement of sound public access policies. For my part, I think that FRPAA has flaws and that it’s a good thing to discuss possible improvements. I also think that publishers have a lot to offer in these discussions and ought to have a seat at the table — bearing in mind that “publishers” are a tremendously varied group. Some of the most heated disagreements during the Roundtable discussions were between publishers.

    The fact that I think that FRPAA can be improved upon and that publishers can play a positive role doesn’t make me any less committed to public access than anybody else, even if it puts me outside of the OA orthodoxy.

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