News Flash – The Martian Paywall

BOSTON – Controversy surrounded the publication of the first research from NASA’s Mars Science Laboratory on Thursday as Michael Eisen, co-founder of the open-access journal PLOS ONE, made the relevant papers freely available without permission. Claiming that NASA’s decision to publish the articles behind Science magazine’s paywall was “completely unfathomable,” Eisen posted links to the research on his personal blog.

Curiosity rover, courtesy of NASA/JPL

Eisen argued that NASA’s status as a government-funded agency meant its works were not subject to copyright, as outlined by Section 105 in Title 17 of the U.S. Code. However, the authors of the papers included several scientists not employed by the government (including project co-chair John Grotzinger of the California Institute of Technology) who held copyright to their distinctive works. Science issued a statement explaining that the articles were subject to the magazine’s “License to Publish,” which allows authors to retain copyright and post links to the articles on personal websites. NASA appeared to reverse its stance on the issue following a storm of criticism on social media; as of Saturday, the papers could be downloaded freely by following the links on the MSL website. Neither government officials nor the researchers have chosen to comment on the issue.

Recent government action regarding open access to research has been variable. As explained by Wired’s David Dobbs, a significant portion of government-funded research must be made available to the public 12 months after its initial publication in accordance with the National Institutes of Health’s Public Access Policy, although this regulation primarily covers biomedical research. In 2012, advocates of open access tabled the Research Works Act, a bill promoted by major scholarly publishers that would have repealed this policy in addition to restricting access to other government-funded articles. Yet in the highly publicized case of Internet activist Aaron Swartz, U.S. Attorney Carmen Ortiz pressed federal felony charges for the illegal publication of articles from the online database JSTOR.

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