FYI: Science Policy News

White House Moves to Make Federally Funded Research Free Upon Publication

AUG 30, 2022
The White House has ordered that by 2026 certain articles and data resulting from federally funded research should be freely available upon publication, but many questions remain about how the policy will be implemented.
Mitch Ambrose headshot
Director of Science Policy News American Institute of Physics

Alondra Nelson at Army Research Lab

Interim OSTP Director Alondra Nelson (Image credit – Neil Adams / Army Research Laboratory)

The White House Office of Science and Technology Policy set off a tectonic shift in scientific publishing last week, issuing a memorandum that directs federal agencies to ensure peer-reviewed articles stemming from research they fund are freely available upon publication. This guidance is to be implemented no later than the start of 2026 and 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. The new policy is accompanied by an economic analysis that argues the benefits of eliminating article embargos now “greatly outweigh” the costs and anticipates the move will accelerate recent innovation in publishing business models.

OSTP offered little indication it was contemplating such a change and, though the Trump administration considered making a similar move, it has generally caught publishers by surprise. Open-access advocates were quick to celebrate the new policy while publishers have generally kept their responses muted as they digest the news.

OSTP argues time is ripe for immediate access

Announcing the new policy, interim OSTP Director Alondra Nelson argued that eliminating embargos will help to make access to research more equitable and accelerate new discoveries.

“Financial means and privileged access must never be the prerequisites to realizing the benefits of federally funded research that the American public deserves,” she wrote. Pointing to the lifting of paywalls during the pandemic as exemplary of the benefits of immediate access, she continued,

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 will apply if any co-author received federal support. The memo states 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 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 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 no later than one year after their release.

Some observers have called attention to how the memo simply “recommends” agencies take these 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 . They stated 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.”

Implications for publishing models up in the air

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. These include declining 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 publication that are valued by the scientific community, such as managing peer review, curating the literature, providing analytics, and “in some cases” offering “prestige.” It also notes that non-profit 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 various direct and indirect ways. Federal agencies fund the research, researchers sometimes pay publication costs using a portion of their grant money, and researchers perform peer review for free. In addition, libraries that are supported by overhead funding from grants use a portion 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, in what is called the “green” model, the journal maintains its paywall but authors are allowed to archive a penultimate version of their paper, called the author accepted manuscript, in a separate free repository. In the “gold” model, authors or their institutions cover the costs of publication through an article processing charge and then the final version of their article is made freely accessible via the journal itself.

In an interview with the journal Science, Nelson said 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 author 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 due to an increasing amount of their content becoming accessible without one.

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

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

To offer a sense of how much these costs might amount to, 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 $3,000.

The office does not estimate costs for making data available, only citing a proposal by 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 so far have emphasized they already maintain a variety of open access journals.

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

Similarly, AIP Publishing Chief Publications 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 of our journals provide options to publish open access with a CC-BY license, whether through our portfolio of fully open access journals or through our Author Select hybrid option. Our authors may also immediately deposit their accepted, peer-reviewed manuscripts in public repositories, allowing for public access to those articles without delay.”

(FYI is published by AIP, a non-profit 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 surveyed over 3,000 physical science researchers to learn more about barriers to open access publishing, in partnership with the American Physical Society , Optica , and IOP 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.

For example, the Association of American Publishers blasted it 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 in principle override the OSTP policy, but it is not clear if there would be support for doing so.

When the Trump administration considered eliminating the embargo period, the move was criticized by Sen. Thom Tillis (R-NC), the top Republican on the Senate Judiciary Committee’s Intellectual Property Subcommittee. He argued it 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 Sen. John Cornyn (R-TX) to promote public access to research, and last week Wyden praised the new OSTP policy as an “astronomical win for innovation and scientific progress.”

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