White House Endorses Open Access Research

February 24, 2013

For a few years no, there has been a growing movement in the research and academic world to provide free or low-cost access to research results.  Traditionally, these results have been under the control of the publishers of academic journals, which charge high annual subscription fees; when access to an individual article is available, it commonly costs $30-40 or more.  I’ve written here several times about the growing trend among organizations, including The Royal Society, Princeton University, the World Bank, and the National Academies Press, to make some or all of their content available at no charge on the Web.   Last summer, the Research Councils UK announced a new open-access policy that applies to all research that they fund, wholly or in part, effective April 2013; this was in part the result of a British government policy decision that all publicly-funded research should be made available online, free of charge.

The US government, of course, provides funding for a great deal of research, too, and there have been increasing calls to make the results of that research freely available, including a petition, on the “We the People” section of the White House web site, which attracted 65,704 signatures.  On Friday, the administration released a response from Dr. John Holdren, Assistant to the President for Science and Technology and Director of the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy, which announced a move toward open access:

The Obama Administration agrees that citizens deserve easy access to the results of research their tax dollars have paid for.

Details of the new policy are contained in a memorandum [PDF] to Federal agencies, directing those with R&D budgets of more than $100 million to develop plans under which all research will be made available to the public, free of charge, within 12 months of original publication.  This approach is modeled on the existing Public Access Policy of the National Institutes of Health (NIH).  Individual agencies need not copy the NIH policy exactly; they are allowed, in principle, to make adjustments to fit their particular fields of research.  And there will be the customary exemptions for national security and other sensitive areas.

We should probably expect a certain amount of squabbling over the details of these policies; after all, the journal publishers have a vested economic interest in the status quo.   There have already been some complaints that the announcement does not go far enough toward completely open access, and doubtless there will be more.  As with any new policy, the odds are that the initial implementation will fall short of perfection.  Yet I think that, on the whole, this is a very positive step.  Once open access to even a part of the research results is granted, it will be very difficult to go back.

National Strategy for Information Sharing and Safeguarding

December 23, 2012

The US government, through its various intelligence operations, collects an enormous amount of information; especially recently, private organizations and businesses have assembled some pretty impressive collections of their own (think Google or Facebook).  These collections have the potential to tell us a lot about the emergence of threats to either physical or information systems assets.  The problem has always been that it is much more challenging to sift through and analyze the information than it is to collect it in the first place.  I’m sure most readers have heard the narrative about all the warning signs of the 9/11 attacks; they were not hard to find after the fact, but no one “connected the dots” beforehand.  Furthermore, even among government agencies, information was not always shared, either because of inter-agency politics, or just inertia.  Information exchange between government and private-sector entities was even more problematic.

In the last decade, there have been efforts made to improve this situation.   As part of that overall effort, this past week the White House released a new National Strategy for Information Sharing and Safeguarding [PDF here, 24 pp. total].  As the title implies, the Strategy recognizes that information must be shared, but in a controlled way; sharing everything with everyone risks giving too much information to potential adversaries.  Citizens’ rights and privacy concerns also need to be taken into account.

Our national security relies on our ability to share the right information, with the right people, at the right time. As the world becomes an increasingly networked place, addressing the challenges to national security—foreign and domestic—requires sustained collaboration and responsible information sharing.

It also recognizes that many entities, not all of them governmental, are involved:

The imperative to secure and protect the American public is a partnership shared at all levels including Federal, state, local, tribal, and territorial. Partnerships and collaboration must occur within and among intelligence, defense, diplomatic, homeland security, law enforcement, and private sector communities.

To the extent that this reflects a shift toward looking at this problem as a whole, and not just at individual pieces, this is a welcome development.

I have had a quick preliminary read of the Strategy; although it is, like many similar documents from large organizations, over-supplied with jargon, its basic thrust seems sound.  The approach is based on three basic principles:

  • Information is a National Asset
  • Information Sharing and Safeguarding Requires Shared Risk Management
  • Information Informs Decisionmaking

The last is perhaps the most important, in the context of recent history.  Information in a form that cannot be used to inform decisions is not worth much.

The Strategy identifies five broad goals going forward:

  • Drive Collective Action through Collaboration and Accountability
  • Improve Information Discovery and Access through Common Standards
  • Optimize Mission Effectiveness through Shared Services and Interoperability
  • Strengthen Information Safeguarding through Structural Reform, Policy, and Technical Solutions
  • Protect Privacy, Civil Rights, and Civil Liberties through Consistency and Compliance

Each of these is discussed, and further broken down to more specifics.  The Strategy then goes on to identify objectives for action going forward.

As is often the case with security policy issues, the devil is very much in the details of implementation; but it is encouraging that a reasonable framework has been developed as a starting point.

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