The Long Road To Open: On Access and Licensing


flickr photo shared by Todd Huffman under a Creative Commons ( BY ) license

Yesterday during a meeting I thought about how far we’ve come (and not) with open data in transportation research. In one respect we’ve come far enough that people just assume it’s happening and understand it’s a good thing. But there’s still so much work to be done and I don’t get a sense the research community really understands or cares. I think this has to do with the usual issues;  Researchers aren’t the policy makers driving the open data/open access mandates. Current funding models rarely account for funding access to research and data when the project is done.

The biggest issue I see with open data in transportation is that more organizations are licensing commercial data instead of generating it themselves. It’s part of the outsourcing trend, where people pay for the data services because it’s more efficient. But of course, now only researchers with the money to pay have access, which leaves many out in the cold. Never mind the lack of public access for data about public utilities, such as traffic on the roads. As we’ve seen with Uber in Los Angeles, regulation doesn’t really get you that far if people aren’t ready to fight for it. Researchers don’t want to cut off potential funding sources and partners, so the system stands as is.

Then today I saw some people talking about the TRB license for their annual meeting paper submission, whereby they receive exclusive licenses to papers accepted for publication worldwide in perpetuity. (This was after some pushback from faculty complaining they received exclusive license to papers not accepted for publication.) TRB’s license is not that unique, but given that most authors’ research is funded by a government agency in some way, and that many of them are from universities with open access mandates of some kind, it seems odd that TRB doesn’t address significant recent changes in the field of scholarly communications.

It’s been 2 1/2 years since the White House OSTP memo and it doesn’t really seem like much progress has been made. Some of this is the length of the rulemaking process, but I think some of this goes beyond inertia. Those who care thought the rule changes would make it so, but for many publishers it’s business as usual and will continue to be so until they have to change. In the case of TRB, that probably means federal agencies and faculty from the big universities pushing on them to change their policies to be more open. (Which probably will increase their citation rates and impact factors, but that’s a different issue.)

For access to data, that will be a much harder fight because I fear we’ve already ceded too much ground to commercial interests. In this area we shouldn’t look to web/commercial data enterprises as the model for how to do big data for transportation because the goals are often different. Public infrastructure is still considered a public good (for now), which requires it to be inclusive.

This is all just to say, we’re going to have to keep pushing for openness for the public good and reminded partners of those public mandates. Many people agree with the idea that publicly funded research and data should be accessible to the public, we need to follow through and make it happen. So I will continue to raise the issues and look for partners, but everybody has to do their part, whether it’s negotiate for better contracts, self-archive publications, or only publish in scholarly venues that allow open access.

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