US mandates immediate public access for taxpayer-funded research

Any research based on federally funded studies must be made freely available to the public without an embargo under a policy announced Thursday by the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy. The new requirement, which is due to take effect by the end of 2025, updates an existing policy that allowed a 12-month embargo for making research freely available.

The head of the White House office, Alondra Nelson, said in a memorandum to federal departments and agencies that the change had been motivated by lessons learned from the COVID-19 pandemic.

“When research is widely available to other researchers and the public, it can save lives, provide policy makers with the tools to make critical decisions, and drive more equitable outcomes across every sector of society,” Nelson wrote. “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.”

Librarians, advocates for open access and many scholars had long advocated for the kind of change the Biden administration just made, which drew serious consideration by both President Barack Obama and Donald Trump. Thursday’s announcement drew accolades from many of those parties. “This update is a historic moment for scientific communications,” the Association for Research Libraries said in a statement. “This acceleration of the public’s access to government-funded research is consistent with the research community’s increasing embrace of open-science practices, and with the need to address such global challenges as health, climate, and economic inequality.”

Publishers, including many scholarly associations with their own paywalled journals, have historically opposed government policies that eliminate embargoes, and they didn’t hold back Thursday.

“Today’s announcement from OSTP about access policies for private sector research publications comes without formal, meaningful consultation or public input during this administration on a decision that will have sweeping ramifications, including serious economic impact,” Shelley Husband, senior vice president for government affairs at the Association of American Publishers, said in an emailed statement.

Many experts on the publishing industry applauded the administration’s decision but acknowledged the financial toll it could take on publishers.

“Over all, this is a very important and positive development for openness, but not without second-order consequences,” said Roger Schonfeld, vice president of organizational strategy at Ithaka, a nonprofit focused on improving access to knowledge and education around the world. “The policy guidance provides a route to paying for data set deposit, through researcher grants, which should further stimulate the data repository ecosystem. But it is less clear how the mandate for free publications will be paid for, which may trouble some of the scholarly publishers, particularly those without well-developed US strategy for transformative agreements.”

The Status Quo

Until Thursday, federal departments and agencies with more than $100 million in annual research and development expenditures had been guided by a 2013 White House memorandum for providing access to government-funded research. That policy included an optional 12-month embargo from public access for publications resulting from federally funded research—a feature that presented a significant barrier for those without financial means or university library privileges.

Federal agencies with more than $100 million in annual R&D expenditures must produce plans within 180 days to comply with the new policy. All other federal agencies must have plans to comply within 360 days. Agencies must publish their plans, which should address peer-reviewed scholarly publications and scientific data, by Dec. 31, 2024. The memorandum also includes guidance for improving transparency on authorship, funding, affiliation and development status of federally funded research.

SPARC, an open-access advocacy group, celebrated the news in a tweet: “Today’s landmark policy guidance from @WHOSTP making US taxpayer-funded research immediately available will speed progress toward curing diseases, preventing pandemics, mitigating climate change, and more.”

The Association of American Universities issued a statement that dubbed the news “an important step forward” for public access to scientific research. The association “has always been a strong proponent of making federally funded studies publicly available. We also were strong proponents of the previous 12-month embargo period for making publications accessible when the policy was originally announced in 2013 … We are currently reviewing the announcement to determine what specific implications it has for our institutions and their faculty members.”

A spokesperson from the American Physical Society declined to comment. But APS and other major scholarly groups strongly opposed the Trump administration when it is considered adopting a similar approach in 2019. Publishers also unsuccessfully fought a European open-access initiative known as Plan S, which went into effect in 2020 and impacted scholarly publishing worldwide.

David Burbach, an associate professor of national security affairs at the US Naval War College, wrote on Twitter that he favors open access but expressed concern about equity for scholars across varied institutions.

“This would be a huge hit to people in institutions like mine, where generally we cannot get funding for access fees,” Burbach wrote. “Perhaps with a govt wide policy requirement that would change.”

The scholarly community will work to address the implications of the new policy, while also managing other timely scientific research concerns.

“The White House mandate reflects on the lessons about the benefits of openness to be learned from the pandemic experience but does not really address the lessons about how an open ecosystem can best be exploited by, and defended against, those with a misinformation agenda,” Schonfeld said.

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