Public access to taxpayer-funded wildfire research

On July 2 we reported on new research about how climate change and precipitation affect fire occurrence, but that you would have to pay at least $20 to have limited access to it. The only way to read the entire report, produced by government employees from the U.S. Forest Service and the University of Washington and paid for by taxpayers, is to buy it from ESA Journals at a minimum cost of “$20 for 30 days” unless you have the contact information of the authors and can convince them to send you a copy of their paper.

The products of research funded by taxpayers should be available on the Internet to all citizens at no additional charge. Period.

However, it is common for government research to be published in scientific journals. If you want access to it you would have to find a library that subscribes to that particular journal, then go there and read it, or pay the publisher a substantial subscription fee or a single use fee.

Government-funded research should be in the public domain, not encumbered by copyright. If it is not, then why do we fund the research in the first place? Is it just a jobs program for PhD’s? If scientific journals want the exclusive rights to research papers, they should pay for the research, not taxpayers.

The government is subsidising scientific journals by giving them exclusive access and copyrights to government documents. To add insult to injury, the government usually pays the journals hundreds or thousands of dollars in “page charges” to publish each scientific paper.

We wrote on July 2:

Before the Internet existed, publishing papers in a paper journal was the only way to distribute new-found knowledge. But paper, or subscription-only journals have outlived their usefulness. Today a scientific paper can be distributed within seconds over the Internet at virtually no cost to the researchers. We no longer need fee-based journals, however many of them do have a peer-review process which can weed out the lower quality papers.


When we expressed this opinion on July 2, it created a bit of a kerfuffle. We heard from some of the authors of the paper in question. One of them wrote to us:

All the articles that the Forest Service *publishes* — General Technical Reports, Research Papers, Research Notes, Proceedings — are available through TreeSearch or through individual research station websites. This includes some journal articles, but usually just the older ones or those not considered to be covered by copyright. We will continue to wrestle with distribution of most journal articles.

However, your comment prompted a more thorough investigation with the Ecological Society of America, and we just learned they will allow us to post the fire-climate article on our website where people can then access it. So some progress has been made!

One of the other authors wrote:

Next time, just email the author(s) and ask for a copy, which you can read, or ask for link, which I think you can post. You can’t post the .pdf due to ESA copyright, but you can link to the legal post authors make and read the paper yourself.

Another researcher not associated with the paper in question and formerly with the U.S. Government but now working for a university, had this to say in responding to a thread of email messages on the subject:

Interesting. I actually downloaded that article this morning after clicking on the FERA site link. So I thought — what is (he) talking about? But I decided to take another look and then realized that the reason I was able to download the .pdf file was that I was recognized as being from (my university) because of my IP address — and we have full access to ESA journals. So you do raise a good point of which I was not aware — to wit, since at least US Government scientist time was involved in the research and publication and the project appears to have been funded by US Government agencies —- why is a publication deriving from those US Government funded efforts not available at no cost to the public?

Why indeed?

International Journal of Wildland Fire

The International Journal of Wildland Fire, published by CSIRO on behalf of the International Association of Wildland Fire (IAWF), until recently had policies similar to that of ESA Journals, charging substantial fees for subscriptions or access to an individual paper. But the IAWF just renegotiated their contract with CSIRO giving free access to the Journal articles to all members of the IAWF. This is still not free to all taxpayers, but it is a small step in the right direction. An individual membership in the IAWF costs $60.

How can we fix this?

It turns out that there is an organization called Alliance for Taxpayer Access. At the top of their web site it says:

American taxpayers are entitled to the research they’ve paid for. The Alliance for Taxpayer Access works to ensure that the published results of research funded with public dollars are made available to the American public, for free, online, as soon as possible.

We discovered on their web site a link to an article written on July 21 that has information about the Federal Research Public Access Act (FRPAA) (S. 1373), a bill that was reintroduced in the Senate on July 18 by Senators Joseph Lieberman (I-CT) and John Cornyn (R-TX).

The article says in part:

The original bill was introduced in 2006 and would “require every federal department and agency with an annual extramural research budget of $100 million or more to make their research available to the public within six months of publication,” according to Andrew Albanese of Publishers Weekly.

The bill has its opponents and that includes a strong and very annoyed group of publishing lobbyists. They are not prepared to get off the government research gravy train just yet.

It is too bad that the bill is limited to agencies with a research budget of at least $100 million.  It should apply to all federal government agencies.

At Wildfire Today we don’t get involved in politics unless an issue affects wildland fire. This issue does, since there have been many thousands of papers written about fire at taxpayer expense, which should be available on the Internet, free to U.S. citizens.

Write your Senators, and ask them to support the Federal Research Public Access Act (FRPAA) (Senate bill #1373). And ask your representatives to support the House version when it is introduced.

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