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NASA opens research to public: Why that’s a big deal

NASA PubSpace provides free online access to hundreds of papers on NASA-funded research projects. The new open-access policy carries important implications for both the agency and for academic research as a whole.

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Astronaut James Newman waves during a spacewalk preparing for the release of the first combined elements of the International Space Station on November 20, 1998 in this image released on November 20, 2013.

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It has been a good week for science and space enthusiasts.

NASA announced last Tuesday that they would be releasing hundreds of peer-reviewed, scholarly articles on NASA-funded research projects online. The articles are entirely free to access for any member of the public.

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The new service is a big deal for the space agency, which has been gathering scientific information on a huge variety of topics since it was established in 1958.

The move comes amid a greater push for scientists to make their research free to the public for others to learn from and to build upon. One computer programmer and research associate at the Britain's University of Bristol went as far as to call the practice of sealing scientific research behind a journal's paywall "immoral."

"If you are a scientist, your job is to bring new knowledge into the world. And if you bring new knowledge into the world, it's immoral to hide it," he wrote in a 2013 editorial published in The Guardian.

NASA's treasure trove of scientific articles can be accessed through NASA PubSpace, where anyone can search through a library of research papers already numbering in the hundreds. The papers now available to the public range from the space-related studies of how ancient Martian tsunamis may have shaped the Red Planet to closer-to-home examinations of how climate change affects the movement of Earth's magnetic poles.

And that's just the beginning.

According to NASA's website, all articles in peer-reviewed scholarly journals and will now be required to be publicly accessible via PubSpace. There will be some exceptions for articles that concern national security and patents, but minus those exceptions, every future academic paper on research funded by NASA will be available to the public for free.

NASA's new policy is because of a 2013 request from the Obama administration to increase public access to the results of all federally funded research, according to a NASA press release. The request applied to all science-funding agencies that are backed by money from the US government.

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This is only the latest in several NASA initiatives to increase public access to the organization. NASA's website has an "Open Government" section that outlines various initiatives to make the agency more available to the public through programs that promote machine-readability of NASA documents, open-source software development, and financial data transparency.

PubSpace has the potential to be a game-changer beyond NASA, however.

Traditionally, academic journal articles require subscriptions to access, which can cost potential viewers a lot. By allowing free, convenient online access, this research will be accessible to all sorts of people and institutions who couldn't afford it. Also, the consolidation of articles from multiple journals into one site will make it a good deal more convenient for those who wish to access the information.

While the free access to this kind of information will thrill science enthusiasts, PubSpace could also have an important impact on further scientific inquiry.

“Making our research data easier to access will greatly magnify the impact of our research,” said NASA Chief Scientist Ellen Stofan in the press release. “As scientists and engineers, we work by building upon a foundation laid by others.”

In other words, by releasing the data, scientists outside NASA will have access to all sorts of knowledge upon which to base their own work. In turn, their discoveries might provide new discoveries that others, including private companies, research organizations, and even NASA itself, could build on.

The new system is part of a greater trend of openness and accessibility in the scientific community. As the internet has grown in usage and sophistication over the past few decades, so has the demand for free, unencumbered access to information that was once the purview of only a select few members of government organizations or academics. 

NASA is not the only scientific body to be affected by this trend. Earlier this month, the Smithsonian points out, the American Chemical Society announced that it is working on a similar public portal to research. Several prominent peer-reviewed journals, including Science and Nature, have launched separate open-access publications in the past few years. Still, legacy journals do not appear ready to give up paywalls entirely, however, and are willing to take legal action against those who breach that boundary. A researcher in Russia is currently facing a lawsuit for releasing 48 million pirated journal articles online in an attempt to make them freely accessible to the public.

While the legal and ethical ramifications of Robin Hood-style scientific piracy are contentious, PubSpace, as a legal way to get to free scientific research, is an important step toward openness and accessibility in the scientific community.

“At NASA, we are celebrating this opportunity to extend access to our extensive portfolio of scientific and technical publications,” said NASA Deputy Administrator Dava Newman in the press release. “Through open access and innovation we invite the global community to join us in exploring Earth, air and space.”

While NASA's selection of articles is already available for browsing, the agency says that PubSpace will not be fully functional until sometime this fall.


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