Just over a month after internet folk hero and activist Aaron Swartz ended his own life, a bipartisan group of law-makers have introduced legislation that would make progress on a cause near and dear to his heart: Open access to publicly funded research. The Fair Access to Science and Technology Research Act (FASTR), introduced this week by Reps. Zoe Lofgren (D-CA), Mike Doyle (D-PA), and Kevin Yoder (R-KS) in the House and Senators John Cornyn (R-TX) and Ron Wyden (D-OR) in the Senate, “require[s] federal agencies with annual extramural research budgets of $100 million or more to provide the public with online access to research manuscripts stemming from funded research no later than six months after publication in a peer-reviewed journal,” building on the success of the National Institutes of Health’s (NIH) 2008 public access policy.
Swartz faced a maximum sentence of decades in prison at the time of his death for charges related to his alleged downloading of nearly 5 million documents from the academic database JSTOR, in what many believe was an attempt to release the data. While efforts to reform the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act (CFAA), the law Swartz was being prosecuted under, using the moniker “Aaron’s Law” emerged quickly, the introduction of FASTR is the first legislative effort since his death to address the open access movement — the effort to provide unrestricted access to peer-reviewed research online.
Here’s how academic publishing works: Research is largely done by members of university communities (frequently funded by the public) who submit research to journals for publication (sometimes paying for the privilege). Then journals send the research back out to other academics to be edited blind (usually pro-bono), and the journal’s (often for profit) publishers sell back access to the published research to university libraries.
While the largest of the for-profit academic publishers, Elsevier, made $1.1 billion in profits in 2011 with a profit margin of around 35 percent, libraries have struggled to afford rising subscription costs that drove up expenditures by a staggering 273 percent between 1986 and 2004. The Harvard Faculty Council released a statement on the crisis last year noting that the prices for online content from two major providers increased by around 145 percent over the last six years alone, saying “[m]any large journal publishers have made the scholarly communication environment fiscally unsustainable and academically restrictive.”
FASTR is not an outright solution to this broken system, but it is a substantive step in the right direction that would provide open access because academic federal funding is the primary source of basic research support in the U.S. (the majority of which is carried out by academic institutions). And there are signs that the open access movement is making dents in the the academic publishing industry’s armor, like JSTOR’s Register & Read program. Neither that limited concession or FASTR will fully bring about the world of free information Swartz envisioned, but taken together they are a sign that world is slowly moving in the right direction.