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US moves to make federally funded research free upon publication

1 September 2022

The White House has ordered that by 2026 the results of government-supported research must be published open access, but many questions remain about how the policy will be implemented.

Alondra Nelson.
Alondra Nelson, interim director of the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy, listens to a briefing at the Army Research Laboratory on 23 August. Nelson announced the new scientific publishing policy two days later. Credit: Neil Adams/Army Research Laboratory

Editor’s note: This article is adapted from a 30 August post on FYI, which reports on federal science policy. Both FYI and Physics Today are published by the American Institute of Physics.

The White House Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP) set off a tectonic shift in scientific publishing on 25 August by issuing a memorandum that directs federal agencies to ensure peer-reviewed articles stemming from research they fund are freely available upon publication. The guidance is to be implemented no later than the start of 2026, and it also applies to data that are necessary to validate scientific findings reported in the publications.

The memo updates a 2013 OSTP policy that allows publishers to limit article access to paying customers for one year. Along with the new policy, OSTP issued an economic analysis that argues the benefits of eliminating article embargoes now “greatly outweigh” the costs. The office anticipates the move will accelerate recent innovation in publishing business models.

Open-access advocates were quick to celebrate the new policy, whereas publishers have generally kept their responses muted as they digest the news. The memo generally caught publishers by surprise, as OSTP had offered little indication it was contemplating such a change. The Trump administration had considered making a similar move, but it faced pushback from publishers who maintained that such a policy could destabilize the industry.

Policy covers journal articles, data, and more

Announcing the new policy, interim OSTP director Alondra Nelson argued that eliminating embargoes will help to make access to research more equitable and to accelerate new discoveries. “Financial means and privileged access must never be the pre-requisites to realizing the benefits of federally funded research that the American public deserves,” she wrote in the memo.

Nelson also pointed to the lifting of paywalls during the pandemic as exemplary of the benefits of immediate access: “The insights of new and cutting-edge research stemming from the support of federal agencies should be immediately available—not just in moments of crisis, but in every moment. Not only to fight a pandemic, but to advance all areas of study, including urgent issues such as cancer, clean energy, economic disparities, and climate change.”

Under the new policy, publications must be made available in “agency-designated repositories,” and the requirement applies if any coauthor receives federal support. The memo states that such publications must include “peer-reviewed research articles or final manuscripts published in scholarly journals” and that agencies may include peer-reviewed book chapters, conference proceedings, and editorials published in other scholarly outlets.

Agencies with annual R&D expenditures greater than $100 million are directed to update their current public-access policies and submit them to the White House for review within six months. Agencies with smaller R&D budgets, which were not subject to the 2013 OSTP policy, will have an extra six months to comply. All agencies are then expected to issue implementation plans by the end of 2024, with an effective date of no later than one year after their release.

Some science publishing experts have called attention to how the memo simply “recommends” agencies take the prescribed actions. Asked by FYI whether that wording means agencies could still choose to permit article embargoes, an OSTP spokesperson did not provide a direct answer in an email response. The spokesperson stated that the policy “seeks to end the current optional embargo” and that OSTP “expects all agencies to have updated public access policies fully implemented by December 2025 to place this research in agency-maintained, online, free public repositories.”

Unclear implications for publishing models

OSTP argues in its economic analysis that technological advancements and social shifts since 2013 have made it possible to require immediate access to publications and data without unduly disrupting the publishing ecosystem. In particular, OSTP cites falling costs of digital publishing and data storage, declining use of physical publications, and the proliferation of models for open sharing of research.

The office acknowledges that publishers provide services beyond publications that are valued by the scientific community, including managing peer review, curating the literature, providing analytics, and, “in some cases,” offering “prestige.” It also notes that nonprofit professional societies use income from publishing to support activities such as scientific conferences, public outreach, and grants that support the research workforce.

At the same time, OSTP stresses that publishers benefit from public funding in direct and indirect ways. Federal agencies fund the research, scientists sometimes pay publication costs using a portion of their federal grant money, and taxpayer-supported researchers perform peer review for free. In addition, libraries that are supported by overhead funding from grants use some of their budgets to pay for journal subscriptions.

OSTP notes that publishers have embraced new business models in response to increasing demands for free access to content. For instance, “green” open-access journals maintain paywalls but allow authors to archive a penultimate, accepted version of their paper in a separate free repository. In the “gold” model, authors or their institutions cover the costs of publication through an article processing charge, and the journal publishes a freely accessible final version.

In an interview with Science, Nelson said that OSTP does not intend to favor any particular publishing business model.

It is plausible the policy will permit publishers to maintain a paywall on the final version so long as the accepted manuscript is deposited in a free repository. However, industry observers predict the policy could lead to a major expansion of gold journals, with publishers seeking to offset losses of revenue as journal subscriptions become less attractive because of an increasing amount of their content becoming accessible without one.

A spokesperson for the major commercial publisher Springer Nature stated last week that the company would like to see “commitment from the US federally funded agencies to support gold [open access].”

OSTP’s memorandum states that agencies should allow grant applicants to include “reasonable” publication and data management costs as allowable expenses in their research budgets. However, the economic analysis report acknowledges that agencies would need additional funds from Congress to cover publication fees without diverting funds from current activities. Most agencies “currently do not explicitly set aside dedicated funding for these costs,” the report says.

To offer a sense of those costs, OSTP estimates that all the federally funded research papers published in 2020 would cost up to around $789 million to publish, or about 0.5% of the $150 billion that federal agencies spent on R&D for that year. The calculation assumes a total output of 263 000 papers and an article processing charge of $3000.

The office does not estimate costs for making data available, though it cites a proposal by the data specialist Barend Mons that institutions should aim to dedicate about 5% of their research budgets to long-term data stewardship.

Publishers begin to weigh in

Many publishers that have reacted to the policy have emphasized that they already maintain a variety of open-access journals.

The American Association for the Advancement of Science, which publishes Sciencehighlighted that its authors are allowed to immediately post the accepted version of their manuscript in open repositories. It added that “it is too soon to tell if this guidance will impact our journals.”

Similarly, AIP Publishing Chief Publishing Officer Penelope Lewis told FYI in an email, “While it is not yet clear how the federal agencies will amend their policies, AIP Publishing welcomes the OSTP announcement and what it could mean for public access to research.” All AIP Publishing journals provide authors the option of publishing open access, and authors can deposit their accepted manuscripts in public repositories, she added.

(FYI and Physics Today are published by AIP, a nonprofit federation of scientific societies. AIP is partially supported by revenues from AIP Publishing, a wholly owned but independently operated subsidiary.)

Lewis also noted that AIP Publishing recently cosponsored a survey of more than 3000 physical science researchers to learn more about barriers to open-access publishing. The resulting report states that about two-thirds of respondents “have been prevented from publishing [open access] because they have not been able to access the necessary monies from funding agencies to cover the cost.”

Some publisher representatives have criticized the process OSTP used to develop the policy and argued it has understated the potential costs.

The Association of American Publishers blasted the policy as coming without “meaningful consultation or public input during this Administration on a decision that will have sweeping ramifications, including serious economic impact.” The organization indicated it would press the subject with Congress, raising concerns about the policy’s impact on “business sustainability and quality.”

Lawmakers could override the OSTP policy, but it is not clear if there would be support for doing so.

Among the critics of embargo elimination is Senator Thom Tillis (R-NC), the top Republican on the Intellectual Property Subcommittee of the Senate Judiciary Committee. In a letter to OSTP during the Trump administration, Tillis argued that such a move would “set a dangerous precedent for American intellectual property rights in private sector–produced downstream products that build upon federally funded research.”

However, there are also strong supporters of public access in both parties. Senate Finance Committee Chair Ron Wyden (D-OR) has previously sponsored legislation with Senator John Cornyn (R-TX) to promote public access to research. Last week Wyden praised the new OSTP policy as an “astronomical win for innovation and scientific progress.”

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