This story has been making the round quite a bit over the last five days. You can find it on various news sites, but here’s the actual press release: NASA Unveils New Public Web Portal for Research Results
Seems great, right? All federally funded research results will be made available for free. As I think it should be. The problem is that this press release is not only short on details, it lacks any and all details for those of us who carry out that research. Before getting to what I mean here, I need to give you five pieces of background information.
1) I, personally, am an outlier in my field where I believe that not only the results, but the raw data that most people normally would not release should be made available to anyone who asks. I’ve posted about this before on this blog. I also have a very strong track record of doing so, so I don’t just “talk the talk” on this issue. So, as you read this, don’t think that I’m against the new policy.
2) As of 2013, the US Executive Branch’s OMB (Office of Management and Budget) directed all federal agencies to make the research they fund publicly accessible, for free. As in, the public has already paid for it once, they shouldn’t have to pay for it twice. So any policy like this is not just magnanimous of a particular federal agency, it’s been mandated by the Office of the President.
3) As of 2015, NASA started to comply with this in terms of data gathered, computer code written, and other things that researchers do to get the results that they publish. All of that stuff has to be released. And you have to detail how this will be done and how you comply with the mandate in what is called a “Data Management Plan” (DMP). In 2016, instead of this being a paragraph on the cover sheet of your proposal, it’s now a 2-page requirement except for some specific programs. I just applied to one and here’s my DMP so you can see what it’s like:
After the database is complete and validated, it will be released to the community in six formats on four distribution sites: (1) The PDS’s Imaging and Cartography Node in PDS4 format; (2) Lunaserv as a layer file which will make it available to any WMS-enabled software (e.g., JMARS, ArcGIS); (3) JMoon/JMARS in their own layer file format; (4) and on the PI’s own established website (http://craters.sjrdesign.net) as a searchable form and in PDS4, CSV ASCII, and GIS shapefile. Finally, there will be one peer-reviewed publication “announcing” the database, describing what it contains, and how it was built for referencing and to further publicize the database. Letters of support for the first three are included in this proposal.
These fit the PDART requirement for archiving independence, sustainability, open availability, searchability, citability, standards-compliant for the sub-field (preeminence), and standard format (standardization), for we are including the default PDS as our primary distribution. The additional venues and formats increase the availability to the community. Because the only code we will use are generic algorithms not developed under PDART, the code will not be archived (verified with PDART program officer, Sarah Noble, June 27, 2016), but it will be described in our publication.
4) NASA is already one of the most open federal agencies about their data. All spacecraft data is made available, for free, PDS. It might be a bit difficult to navigate, but there is literally terabytes of data there, all for free, for you to download and work with. I rely on it for most of my research.
5) Other fields and federal agencies already do what the latest NASA press release says, and it’s been in place for a long time. The issue in part is that journals we publish in have monopolies on the field, and they charge us to publish and then you to read. Win-win for them. The NIH (National Institutes of Health) have a policy that all research papers have to be made available, for free, to the public, through “PubMed,” but they let the journals have a one-year proprietary period.
With that all said and out of the way, what the heck does this latest press release mean?! The scientists (like me) have not had any clarification or any information about this. Does this mean NASA has worked out a deal (like the NIH has) with journals? Do I need to remember 1+ year after publication to submit to NASA’s website for this, or will it be done automatically? Does this only apply to new grants (since it’s not in my contract with NASA to do it for ones that I already have funded)? Will it apply retroactively? What about past research that’s been published for decades? Does this require the “Open Access” publication option for journals, which can cost upwards of $3000 that I need to include in my budgets?
And, why does NASA’s portal for this go through the NIH?!?! (the website they link to for this is https://www.nihms.nih.gov/db/sub.cgi)
And those are just the questions I thought of within a few minutes of reading the press release.
So, let me repeat, so that there is no ambiguity here: I’m all for this. I don’t like that the journals have a monopoly and it’s pay to publish and pay to read and legally I can’t even give you a PDF copy of the paper I wrote but published with them. I also think that all the data we generate should be made public, and the public should have access to the results.
But, this is like a … scratch that, it pretty much IS a mandate by press release with no information on to what it applies, to whom it applies, nor how it applies. Until then, that’s really all this is: A press release.