In a major win for open access advocates, the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP) this week issued updated guidance that directs all federal departments and agencies to make the results of taxpayer-supported research available to the American public at no cost.
In an August 25 memorandum, OSTP head Alondra Nelson gave a deadline of December 31, 2025 for agency heads to implement policies that will ensure taxpayer-funded research be “publicly accessible, without an embargo, or cost.” Current policy allows agencies to permit embargoes for journal articles for up to a year.
The new policy is the culmination of a nearly 20-year effort by public access advocates, including the library community. “This is an enormous leap forward,” said Heather Joseph, executive director of SPARC, which has long pushed for public access policies. “For the first time, everyone will have free and immediate access to the results of all federally funded research to speed solutions for global challenges—from cancer to climate change.” According to Joseph, U.S. taxpayers currently spend more than $80 billion on research each year, yet much of that research is often locked behind paywalls.
“If the proposed policy goes into effect, not only would it wipe out a significant sector of our economy, it would also cost the federal government billions of dollars, undermine our nation’s scientific research and innovation, and significantly weaken America’s trade position,” said AAP CEO Maria A. Pallante, in a 2019 statement. “Nationalizing this essential function—that our private, non-profit scientific societies and commercial publishers do exceedingly well—is a costly, ill-advised path.”
With the announcement of the new OSTP policy this week, however, AAP officials voiced their opposition but adopted a more concilatory tone.
"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, AAP senior v-p for government affairs, adding that the move came without "formal, meaningful consultation or public input" and will have "sweeping ramifications." including a "serious" economic impact.
"How will publishers, especially small publishers, sustain the accuracy, quality, and output that the public interest requires?" the statement continues. "As we work with the Administration and Congress in the days ahead, our focus will be to preserve our nation’s leadership in research and innovation, and to ensure that we continue to have a vibrant independent industry for scholarly publications."
The issue of public access to taxpayer-funded research has been the subject of repeated administrative and legislative action over the years. In 2004, the National Institutes of Health first drafted an open access mandate for the research it funds, which was eventually adopted in 2008. The mandate requires that NIH-funded research be made freely available to the public through the PubMed Central repository within 12 months of publication.
In 2006, U.S. Senators John Cornyn (R-TX) and Joe Lieberman, (I-CT) introduced the Federal Research Public Access Act, which would have required every federal department and agency with an annual extramural research budget of $100 million or more to make their research available to the public within six months of publication. The bill was re-introduced in 2010, and again in 2012, but failed to advance. Then in 2013, and again in 2015, Congress considered The Fair Access to Science and Technology Research Act (FASTR).
Also in 2013, the Obama Administration issued a Policy Memorandum that directed federal agencies with research budgets of $100 million or more to submit plans for the development and implementation of public access policies. But in November, 2019, the Government Accountability Office issued a report finding that just 8 of 19 agencies had "fully developed and implemented mechanisms to ensure compliance with their public access plans and associated requirements."
For their part, publishers have consistently opposed government-mandated public access policies, arguing that market solutions to public access issues are sufficient. In turn, the publishing community has over the years crafted alternative bills that sought to block public access mandates, including the Research Works Act, and the Fair Copyright in Research Works Act.
In a statement, OSTP head Alondra Nelson said the administration will work with agencies to update their public access and data sharing plans by mid-2023, with the expectation that all agencies will have updated public access policies "fully implemented" by the end of 2025, a timeline that gives "agencies, researchers, publishers, and scholarly societies some flexibility" in crafting their public access policies.
“When research is widely available to other researchers and the public, it can save lives, provide policymakers with the tools to make critical decisions, and drive more equitable outcomes across every sector of society,” Nelson, said. “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.”