In a move hailed by open-access advocates, the White House on Thursday released guidance dictating that federally funded research be made freely and immediately available to the public.
The Office of Science and Technology Policy’s guidance calls for federal agencies to make taxpayer-supported research publicly available immediately, doing away with an optional 12-month embargo. It also requires the data underlying that research to be published. Federal agencies have until December 31, 2025, to institute the guidance.
“The American people fund tens of billions of dollars of cutting-edge research annually. There should be no delay or barrier between the American public and the returns on their investments in research,” Alondra Nelson, head of the office, known as OSTP, said in a news release.
Heather Joseph, executive director of the Scholarly Publishing and Academic Resources Coalition, told The Chronicle that the announcement was “extremely welcome news.” The provision requiring data to be published, she said, is especially significant and will “help boost scientific integrity and trust in science” by allowing other scientists to validate researchers’ conclusions.
Nelson’s memo outlining the guidance cites the Covid-19 pandemic as a “powerful case study on the benefits of delivering research results and data rapidly to the people.” At the outset of the pandemic, scholarly publishers lifted their paywalls for Covid-related articles and made research available in machine-readable formats, which Joseph said allowed scholars to use text- and data-mining, artificial-intelligence, and computational techniques on others’ work.
The new guidance expands on a 2013 memo issued by OSTP during the Obama administration. That memo applied only to federal agencies that fund more than $100 million in extramural research; the Biden memo has no such cap. That means that, for example, work funded by the National Endowment for the Humanities, which didn’t meet the $100-million threshold in 2013, will for the first time be covered by federal open-access policy, Peter Suber, director of the Harvard Open Access Project, wrote on Twitter.
The Association of Research Libraries welcomed the expansion in a statement that described the memo as “a historic moment for scientific communications.”
Lifting the yearlong embargo that some journals have imposed on papers they publish will promote more equitable access to research, some said. The previous policy “limited immediate equitable access of federally funded research results to only those able to pay for it or have privileged access through libraries or other institutions,” two officials in the White House office wrote in a blog post. “Financial means and privileged access must never be the prerequisite to realizing the benefits of federally funded research that all Americans deserve.”
That’s a theme President Biden has championed for years. Thursday’s White House news release quoted his remarks to the American Association for Cancer Research as vice president in 2016, when he criticized taxpayer-funded research that “sits behind walls” put up by journals’ subscription fees.
The best thing I can say about this new policy is that publishers will hate it.
Sen. Ron Wyden, a Democrat from Oregon, released a statement praising the guidance for “unlocking federally funded research from expensive, exclusive journals” and calling it “an astronomical win for innovation and scientific progress.” (Wyden and a fellow Democratic senator, Ed Markey of Massachusetts, in February urged Nelson to establish an open-access policy.) And Michael Eisen, a co-founder of the open-access project PLOS, applauded the guidance on Twitter. “The best thing I can say about this new policy,” he wrote, “is that publishers will hate it.”
It’s not clear how academic publishers, whose profits and business model will be affected, plan to adapt to the new guidelines. A spokesperson for Elsevier, a leading commercial publisher of academic journals, wrote in an email to The Chronicle that Elsevier “actively supports open access to research” and that 600 of its 2,700 journals are fully open-access (nearly all of the others, the spokesperson wrote, enable open-access publishing). “We look forward to working with the research community and OSTP to understand its guidance in more detail.”
Emails from The Chronicle to three other major academic publishers — Springer Nature, Taylor & Francis, and Wiley — did not draw an immediate response.
Some commentators worried that publishers would raise the article-processing charges, or APCs, associated with open-access publishing in their journals. But Joseph, of the academic-resources coalition, said she hopes language in the guidance that encourages “measures to reduce inequities in publishing,” particularly among early-career scholars and those from underserved backgrounds, will prevent that.
“Those publishers that try to charge ridiculously high APCs will find it difficult, because ‘inequity in publishing’ means ‘I’m priced out of being able to publish. I can’t afford to contribute my research article to the scientific record,’” Joseph said. The White House’s blog post also noted that it was working to ensure “support for more vulnerable members of the research ecosystem unable to pay rising costs associated with publishing open-access articles.”
And authors have other options by which to make their work open, Joseph said. The guidance, she noted, allows authors to make their manuscripts freely available in an “agency-designated repository” — even if it’s also published in a journal.
The National Institutes of Health, which finances more than $32 billion a year in biomedical research, promised on Thursday to comply with the new guidance. “We are enthusiastic to move forward on these important efforts to make research results more accessible, and look forward to working together to strengthen our shared responsibility in making federally funded research results accessible to the public,” Lawrence A. Tabak, acting director of the NIH, wrote in a statement.