Washington gives a big boost to drive for open-access scientific publishing

30 Aug 2022 | News

Following in Europe’s Plan S footsteps, the White House says it will no longer allow research funded by taxpayers to be hidden behind paywalls

Alondra Nelson, Director of the Office of Science and Technology Policy. 

The movement towards open-access scientific publishing got an historic boost this month, with the White House ordering an end to publishers putting most federally funded research behind paywalls.

The announcement 25 August gives new momentum to a free-to-read policy for scientific papers and data that began in Europe. “Such a strong statement, from a country (the US) that is leading in many research areas, will greatly advance efforts for global open access”, said Johan Rooryck, executive director of cOAlition S, a group of research funding and performing organisations that have signed up to the European Union’s “Plan S” publishing initiative.

But some  publishers were displeased. The Association of American Publishers criticised the move, saying it will have serious economic impact, and endanger “a competitive marketplace geared towards excellence” in favour of government-mandated business models.

“In a no-embargo environment, in which private publications will be made immediately available by the government for free, our primary concerns are about business sustainability and quality,” said Shelley Husband, senior vice president for government affairs at the AAP.

The business model

For years, as R&D budgets globally grew – to more than $2 trillion a year, according to UNESCO – the business of publishing the resulting research had also expanded. Researchers generally submitted their results, often funded by government, to publishers who organised peer review of its quality and, if accepted, made it available to readers with a subscription fee. In a statement to the US Congress this month, the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy cited reports of publisher profits of $1,500 to $2,000 per article – figures hotly disputed by the industry.

But in recent years, the movement to open-access publishing has gathered steam, with a wide slice of research now appearing on free-access servers and journals. In the European Union, the Commission launched a major push for open access several years ago, including its Plan S coalition. To adapt, some publishers have switched to charging researchers, rather than readers, for the publication costs; others have been innovating entirely new publication models. Still others have been negotiating special deals with individual universities.

In 2013, the US took a small step towards open access, but still allowed publishers to put research behind paywalls for up to one year. It is that option that the White House ordered federal funders to end. Effective by 2026 at the latest, all federal research agencies with budgets of more than $100 million a year must demand immediate release, when ready for publication, of all research or data that doesn’t pose any special security, intellectual property or other routine constraints. Smaller agencies will have more time to adapt their practices.

“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,” said Alondra Nelson, head of OSTP, in a statement.

But the new policy also allows the publishers to work out other funding models – such as charging researchers or their institutions for the work they do in reviewing, publishing and marketing the reports and data. It leaves the details to the individual federal research agencies to develop, based on the needs of their own scientific communities. OSTP estimate the potential federal budgetary cost at between $390 million and $789 million a year, and said it would provide special help to researchers and institutions that need it.

A European example

Robert-Jan Smits, architect of Plan S and former chief of the European Commission’s research and innovation directorate, praised the US developments. “I think it’s fantastic that there is an alignment of policies in regards to open access,” said Smits. “No one has been able to explain to me what the interest to our society is of putting knowledge behind a paywall for 12 months.”

Back in 2018, Smits had tried to convince the OSTP to join the coalition for Plan S, but while there was interest, with the Trump administration in power, the timing was wrong.

Since then, the open science movement has grown stronger. In early 2020, when the COVID-19 pandemic spread, leading science funders and publishers made research into the new virus publicly available in a bid to accelerate the development of cures and vaccines, stopping the spread of the disease. It was a big moment for open science, and has contributed to the record-time development of vaccines, among other achievements.

Earlier this month, the White House, together with science and technology leaders from around the world, called for a similar effort to open up research and data on the monkeypox virus, which has been rapidly spreading around the world this year.

Smits believes the two health emergencies have highlighted the importance of open access to scientific knowledge. There may also be a  personal interest in this issue for President Joe Biden, Smits says. Biden had previously spoken out about the injustice of scientific knowledge being locked up behind paywalls. In 2015, when his son Beau died of a brain tumour, the now-president was disappointed the research that could have saved his life was not freely accessible to all researchers.

“If you ask me what has been motivating the decision of Joe Biden, I think first of all it’s his personal history with his son as well as the COVID-19 pandemic and the monkeypox outbreak,” said Smits.

Publishers react

While the move is expected to hit the pockets of publishers who have been able to charge fees during the 12-month embargo period, industry has not put up a fully united front against the memorandum.

The American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS), publisher of the Science family of journals, highlighted its openness to open access and is not jumping to conclusions about the move. “While many early reports are signalling that OSTP’s guidance to federal agencies will substantially impact scientific publishers, we believe it is too soon to tell if this guidance will impact our journals,” said Sudip Parikh, chief executive officer of the AAAS.

Frontiers, an open access publisher, showed strong support for the policy update. “As we face down global, existential threats, not least climate change, open science without paywalls will accelerate collaboration and improve our chances of success. We stand ready to work with partners in the vanguard of this transition,” said Kamila Markram, co-founder and chief executive officer of Frontiers.

Next steps

Now, US research agencies will have to translate the new guidance into open access policy. The first item on the agenda is updating their public access and data sharing plans by mid-2023, with the help of OSTP.

US National Institutes of Health (NIH) is already moving towards more open access publishing, with a new policy for data management and sharing seeking to maximise access to scientific data set to take effect in January 2023. It will now work to develop and implement policy under the OSTP guidance, Lawrence A. Tabak, performing the duties of the NIH Director, said in a statement.

During the process, Smits hopes to see cooperation and knowledge sharing with European counterparts, who are currently also working on implementing open access policies. “I’ve always said that the devil is not in the detail, the devil is in the implementation,” said Smits. ”Now that the implementation phase starts, it’s a great opportunity to sit together with EU and US policymakers.”

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