Open Access. Here comes the public attack against the bi-partisan Federal Research Public Access Act of 2006, which would require 11 government agencies to publish online any articles that contained research financed with federal grants. See Sara Ivry, Some Publishers of Scholarly Journals Dislike Bill to Require Online Access to Articles, New York Times, 5/8/06.
What is particularly galling is one of the two publisher responses to the taxpayer access argument for open access. The taxpayer argument is simple: we paid for it, we should get to read it without paying again. Publishers have two responses: (1) the economic argument and (2) the elitist argument.
The economic argument holds that taxpayers do not pay for all of the valuable inputs into a publicly-funded journal article, and open access will destroy publisher motivation to add value.
The elitist argument holds that taxpayers cannot be trusted with open access because they might harm themselves by misreading or misunderstanding an article written by specialists for specialists. In the case of biomedical research, the argument goes, open access could lead non-specialist members of the public to self-treat, to fail to seek medical attention, and/or to disobey doctor's orders.
Let's just focus on the elitist argument for a moment. How would that argument fly with respect to other kinds of government expenditure? Voters should not have access to information about how the war in Iraq is going because they're likely to misunderstand how complex modern warfare is? Voters should not have access to hurricaine readiness preparations in New Orleans because meteorology is a complex business? These arguments are laughable on their face. Why doesn't the elitist argument against open government get the same response when it comes to science? The different treatment arises out of fundamental differences between the respective cultures of law and science, differences nicely analyzed in Steven Goldberg's 1994 book, Culture Clash: Law and Science in America (NYU Press). The culture of science has been buffered in some respects from our more general information policy in the U.S.
But the Internet is forcing science to confront that policy now, and that policy is rooted in the First Amendment. In the United States, we begin with a premise of democratic access to information. Arguments by elites that the American voter "can't handle the truth" run afoul of our deepest commitments. While it is important to recognize that transmission of information does not equate with transmission of knowledge, to presume that open access to scholarly information never amounts to transmission of knowledge to members of the general public is offensive to our core beliefs.
Members of Congress and their respective staffs should treat the elitist argument as constitutionally suspect and not waste any time on it as the debate on this important initiative moves forward.