The US government funds oodles of scientific research every year, using taxpayers' money ostensibly for the betterment of mankind. However, when it comes time to publish the results of the research, many papers end up in journals that limit online access to the research to subscribers or those willing to pay around $30 per article for access. This doesn't seem like a substantial cost, until you consider that there are thousands of different journals and the cost of subscribing to all of them at a university can cost millions of dollars.
To compound this, the cost of online access to that research has increased at an astronomical rate over the last six years, to the point that university libraries are suggesting that they won't be able to maintain access for their students and faculty if something doesn't change.
The situation came to a head earlier this year when Tim Gowers, a Fields Medal-winning mathematician from Cambridge University, announced that he was boycotting journals published by Elsevier, the world's largest publisher of scientific journals. That post kicked off a movement--as of May 2012, 11782 scientists around the world have refused to publish in or work on Elsevier's journals.
This is just the latest step in the decades-long quest for open access to scientific research. In many ways, it began in the 40s, when the US government attempted to squelch the publication of all research that related to the nuclear bomb. While many of the scientists who worked on the Manhattan Project formed the Federation of American Scientists to prevent nuclear science from becoming a closed field, they were part of the Manhattan Project and were bound by their security clearances and disclosure agreements. This prevented them from publishing any details of the primary research done during the Manhattan Project. However, nine scientists--associate professors and graduate students from the University of Pennsylvania--weren't part of the Manhattan Project and had no such limitations. They set out to recreate the research that led to the Bomb and succeeded. Their story is fascinating and paved the way for many of the freedoms we take for granted today.
So where does that leave us? If you value open access to publicly-funded scientific research, it's probably a good idea to take five minutes, create an account and sign the petition.