Once again, Congress has introduced a bill that would mandate public access to publicly-funded federal research. The Fair Access to Science and Technology Research Act (FASTR) was introduced in Congress February 14 on a bi-partisan basis. The bill would require that federal agencies with annual extramural research budgets of $100 million provide the public with online access to research manuscripts stemming from publicly-funded research no later than six months after publication in a peer-reviewed journal.

FASTR, however, adds a crucial new element to previous public access proposals: the bill would seek to enable computational analysis across the full range of articles submitted. "Along with a strong emphasis on the need to leverage the power of the Internet to share articles resulting from federally funded scientific research broadly and quickly," observed Heather Joseph, executive director at SPARC (The Scholarly Publishing and Academic Resources Coalition), "the proposed bill underscores the value of reuse."

FASTR, Joseph explained in a statement, calls for federal agencies covered to require articles be "provided in formats and under terms that ensure researchers have the ability to freely apply cutting-edge analysis tools" to the full collection of digital articles resulting from public funding.

"This is a crucial step," she explained. "As the volume of research information increases, with a mind-boggling 1.5 million research articles published each year, no person can realistically hope to make full sense of this information by simply accessing and reading individual articles on their own. We must enable computers as a new category of reader to help power through this volume, thousands of articles at a time, and to highlight patterns, links, and associations that would otherwise go undiscovered. Computational tools like text mining and data mining are crucial to achieving this, and have the potential to revolutionize the research process."

FASTR comes a year after Congress introduced but failed to act on the Federal Research Public Access Act of 2012 (FRPAA). That bill had an uphill climb, supporters noted, having been introduced in an election year, and having been referred to the U.S. House Committee on Oversight and Government—the committee chaired by Rep. Darrell Issa (R-CA), who was a sponsor of a competing publisher-backed bill, the Research Works Act that conversely sought to bar the federal government from instituting public access mandates.

The RWA was publishers’ second recent attempt to push legislation that would derail any broad, federally mandated public access measures. In 2009, the Fair Copyright in Research Works Act also sought to forbid public access mandates, but that measure failed to get out of committee. Last year's introduction of the RWA, however, proved to be something of a PR nightmare for publishers, spurring editorials in major publications, recognition of the issue by a range of public advocacy groups, and even a petition drive among scientific researchers in which nearly 5600 signatories pledged not to publish with, referee, or do editorial work for leading STM publisher Elsevier, partly due to its support of the RWA.

As expected, AAP swiftly issued a statement condemning FASTR. “Different name, same boondoggle,” concluded AAP officials. In opposing FASTR, AAP officials channeled their inner Mitt Romney—labeling the law a wasteful big government program that would impose a nightmare of regulatory burden on researchers and duplicate activity from publishers.

“This bill would waste so much taxpayers’ money at a time of budgetary crisis, squander federal employees’ time with busywork and require the creation and maintenance of otherwise-unneeded technology,” said Allan Adler, general counsel and v-p, government affairs, AAP, “all the while ignoring the fact that its demands are already being performed successfully by the private sector.”

AAP deeply opposes public access mandates, which they see as undermining their role in scholarly publishing, and the introduction of FASTR once again ramps up the tension between public access advocates—who have gained significant momentum in recent years—and publishers.

AAP officials claim FASTR disregards what is being already accomplished through public-private partnerships and agency collaborations such as the CrossRef "FundRef" pilot, and would require agencies to undertake "extensive new duties and reporting requirements" while also "requiring them to invest in new taxpayer-funded technology resources" and systems.

"Such systems and protocols are already in place," Adler asserted, "functioning effectively. Researchers should not be required to duplicate what’s available to them and taxpayers shouldn’t be stuck footing the bill for it too.”