Fighting To Free Knowledge Paid For By Taxpayers – And Winning

Posted on 4 Oct 2013


la-fi-mh-nasa-20131007-001One of the pioneers of open access is Michael Eisen, who helped found what has become the leading open access publisher, Public Library of Science, back in 2000. Since then, he’s been a pugnacious defender of the public’s right to read the research it has paid for, so perhaps it’s no surprise that he decided to take direct action in the following case involving NASA:

The Mars Curiosity rover has been a huge boon for NASA – tapping into the public’s fascination with space exploration and the search for life on other planets. Its landing was watched live by millions of people, and interest in the photos and videos it is collecting is so great, that NASA has had to relocate its servers to deal with the capacity.

So what does NASA do to reward this outpouring of public interest (not to mention to $2.5 billion taxpayer dollars that made it possible)? They publish the first papers to arise from the project behind a Science magazine’s paywall

It’s a great point: here was a fantastic opportunity to build on the evident excitement among the general public brought about by the Mars Rover project, and to deepen people’s interest in science, and yet NASA prevented that by stupidly locking up its papers behind a paywall. Eisen decided to do something about it:

This whole situation is even more absurd, because US copyright law explicitly says that all works of the federal government – of which these surely must be included – are not subject to copyright. So, in the interests of helping NASA and Science Magazine comply with US law, I am making copies of these papers freely available here

Unlike the tragic story of Aaron Swartz, who also believed that knowledge should be shared, this one has a happy ending:

As of today [27th September] these articles are now available to download from the JPL [Jet Propulsion Laboratory] website. I assume this was done in response to this post and the attention it received. (They were not there on the 26th when the press releases went out – I looked. And you can see from the PDFs that they weren’t downloaded from the Science website until the 27th.) Let’s hope that in the future that all NASA papers – and indeed the results of all government funded research – are made immediately freely available.

It’s great news that Eisen’s actions did not end in the usual legal threats from publishers, but in the release of the papers on the JPL site. However, as he points out, this isn’t about a few papers from NASA, however interesting they may be. This is about free access to all research that the public funds. Despite huge advances over the last decade, we’re still some way from achieving that, which makes Eisen’s latest victory for open access all the more welcome.

Posted in: Space