Free Open Access to Government Research is a Move In The Right Direction — 3/01/2013
In the wake of the suicide of Internet openness activist Aaron Swartz, the White House has announced a new openness directive that will make the results of federally funded research available to the public for free within a year. The move is a bow to public pressure for unfettered access to scholarly articles and other materials produced at taxpayers’ expense. The directive applies to agencies with more than $100 million in research and development expenditures. They are required to develop plans to open data to the public within six months, and those plans then will be vetted by the White House. An exception was carved out for federal agencies which will be permitted a 12-month embargo time before offering access and can petition for a longer lag.
According to the director of the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy, John Holdren, the new directive took the concerns of scientific journals into account. Scientists usually published the results of their work in scholarly journals, and these publications have repeatedly warned that open access would destroy them and the function they provide the scientific community. The directive was designed to balance the public benefit of increasing access to results of federally-funded research and protect the valuable contributions of the scientific publishing industry. The industry appears to be pleased with the directive. Tom Allen, chief executive of the Association of American Publishers, issued a statement saying, “The OSTP takes a fair path that would enhance access for the public, acknowledge differences among agencies and scientific disciplines and recognize the critical role publishers play in vetting, producing, establishing and preserving the integrity of scientific works.”
The new directive comes amid a changing landscape for publishing and the availability of information online. Still there is more to do. Many other public records are not freely accessible to the public and they should be. For example, arrest records and mugshots are not always released even though they are part of a public record. Sometimes a burdensome Freedom of Information request is required to obtain the information, but often times these types of records are not release by federal government agencies like the US Marshals Service at all or even some local jurisdictions.
What is interesting is that the US Marshal Service always releases this type of information when they believe it would be beneficial to the agency’s interests. Gerald M. Auerbach, general counsel for the marshals, said in a Dec. 12 inter-agency memorandum that booking photos are kept in records protected by privacy laws and are released to the media or the public only if making them public helps law enforcement. Thus, if they want to pat themselves on the back for apprehending a particularly dangerous fugitive or need more witnesses to come forward, the public is suddenly guaranteed to be given access to the arrest record and mugshot via the media.
This arbitrary release flies in the face of what open government and access to public records was meant to do: namely, provide notice of official actions taken by government to all the individual members of society, as well as give the official status of individuals and property. Using the internet and other new electronic technology to make public records accessible to the public empowers people with tools to keep government accountable quickly and cheaply. Access should not be dependent solely on whether the government needs praise or more evidence to make its case.
The legacy of Aaron Swartz will live on as long as more information is made freely accessible to the public. The next step would be removing barriers to access of public records like arrests and mugshots. Free access to public records is required in order to ensure accountability of our government and public officials, as well as secure our collective safety and civil liberties. Public records must be seen freely. Supporting measures that enhance free access to public records could help prevent another Aaron Swartz type crime of “downloading too many free articles from an online database of scholarly work,” from happening again. The White House has taken the right step, now they must continue the process by including other public records.