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US government to make all research it funds open access on publication

Alondra Nelson, President Joe Biden's pick for OSTP Deputy Director for Science and Society, speaks during an announcement on January 16, 2021, at the Queen theater in Wilmington, Delaware.
Enlarge / Alondra Nelson, President Joe Biden’s pick for OSTP Deputy Director for Science and Society, speaks during an announcement on January 16, 2021, at the Queen theater in Wilmington, Delaware.

Many federal policy changes are well known before they are announced. Hints in speeches, leaks, and early access to reporters at major publications all serve to pave the ground for the eventual confirmation. But on Thursday, the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP) dropped a big one that seemed to take everyone by surprise. Starting in 2026, any scientific publication that receives federal funding will need to be openly accessible on the day it’s published.

The move has the potential to further shake up the scientific publishing industry, which has already adopted preprint archives, similar mandates from other funding organizations, and greatly expanded access to publications during the pandemic.

The change was announced by Alondra Nelson, acting head of the OSTP (a permanent Director is in the process of Senate confirmation). The formal policy is laid out in an accompanying memorandum.

An awkward history

The US government is likely to be the world’s largest funder of scientific research. For medical research, the US National Institutes of Health spends more than the rest of the top 20 organizations combined. Yet, for decades, the scientific publishing system was set up so that the government (much less the people it represented) didn’t necessarily have access to the research it was funding. Instead, access was predicated on paid subscriptions to the journals the work was published in.

Two trends have undercut that limitation. One is the rise of open-access journals, which charge an up-front fee to the researchers and then provide anyone with Internet service access to the final research publication. The second is the trend toward “preprints.” Preprint servers, pioneered by researchers in physics and astronomy, provide access to manuscripts submitted to publishers for peer review. Their use in the biological sciences expanded considerably during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Some people involved in scientific publishing worried that these trends would undercut the finances of the entire publishing industry, while others hoped to push them to open up all scientific publishing. This tension played out in the halls of Congress, where competing legislation would mandate or block open access to federal research. A truce of sorts was reached during the Obama administration. For federally funded research, publishers had two choices: either make the publication open access from the start or have subscription-only access for a year before opening things up. Government-sponsored repositories were opened to host copies of papers that weren’t made open access on the publisher’s site.

In the intervening time, there’s been a lot of growth in open access journals, and many subscription journals allowed authors to pay a fee to immediately open published papers. Most subscription journals also offered COVID-related papers as open access without any additional fees. OSTP has apparently decided that these adjustments have prepared the industry to survive even greater access levels.

Wide open

OSTP also contends that the payoffs of doing so for society would be large. “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 in her announcement. The policy document elaborates this by arguing the COVID-19 pandemic indicated that the benefits of immediate public access (as opposed to a year of subscription only) are even greater.

Under the new policy, any agency that funds more than $100 million in grants has 180 days to submit a revised policy to OSTP; smaller agencies have a year to do so. These plans must involve having any publications resulting from this funding be deposited in publicly accessible repositories on the day they appear in a scientific journal. They may still appear in subscription-only journals, but a copy must be made public. Separately, any data used in the publication must also be placed in a public-accessible repository.

By the end of 2024, agencies must have plans to ensure that information on everyone involved in the publications is also available in repositories. All the data and documentation associated with publications must have a digital identifier (such as a DOI) associated with them. By the end of 2025, all of these policies need to be implemented.

To an extent, this overlaps with existing NIH policy, which allows authors to deposit pre-publication versions of their papers; publishers can still add value through formatting, integrated graphics and movies, and convenient cross-referencing to other studies, thus (potentially) justifying the price of subscriptions. Charging fees for publishing papers in open access form will also remain an option. So, this won’t kill the scientific publishing industry overnight.

The most striking change is the immediacy of having a parallel copy available on the day of publication. But, in the longer term, having a system to identify and access the underlying data could be more significant. Right now, most publishers require relevant data to be shared, but there’s often no formal way of enforcing that requirement, and it’s widely ignored. Making it a condition of funding can obviously change that.

As is currently the case, enforcing the new requirements will be the key to the impact of this program. By the time a paper goes through peer review and gets published, many of the people involved have already moved on to other projects. Taking the time to put their earlier work into a repository doesn’t provide obvious rewards, so there will have to be some enforcement mechanism to drive adoption.

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