A decades-long battle over how best to provide the public with access to the fruits of US government-funded research has come to a head.
The administration of President Joe Biden announcement yesterday that, by the end of 2025, federal agencies must make articles describing taxpayer-funded work freely available to the public as soon as the final peer-reviewed manuscript is published. The data underlying these publications must also be made available free of charge “without delay”.
Many details of the new policy, including exactly how the government will fund immediate public access, remains to be decided. But it significantly reshapes and extends the existing – and bitterly contested –US access rules in place since 2013. Specifically, the White House has considerably weakenedbut not officially eliminated, the ability of journals to keep final versions of federally funded articles behind a paid subscription wall for up to 1 year.
Many commercial publishers and nonprofit scientific societies have long fought to maintain the year-long embargo, saying it is essential to protect subscription revenues that cover publishing and production costs and fund company activities. But critics of paywalls say they impede the free flow of information, have allowed price gouging by some publishers and force US taxpayers to “pay twice” – once to fund research and once to watch. the results. Since the late 1990s, critics have lobbied Congress and the White House to demand free and immediate “open access” to government-funded research.
The Biden administration has heeded those calls, though the new policy doesn’t expressly encompass the term open access — it uses the words “public access.” This is “a de facto open access mandate,” says Stefano Bertuzzi, CEO of the American Society for Microbiology (ASM), which publishes 16 journals. And many open access advocates applaud it.
“It’s a huge step forward,” says Heather Joseph, executive director of the Scholarly Publishing and Academic Resources Coalition, one of the oldest open access advocacy groups in the United States. “Getting rid of this embargo is huge.”
The embargo and related policies “were sheer betrayals of the public interest”, tweeted molecular biologist Michael Eisen of the University of California at Berkeley, a prominent critic of access policies in the United States and co-founder of PLOS journals, which helped pioneer an open access business model in which authors pay a fee to make their articles immediately free for everyone. “The best thing I can say about this new policy is that publishers are going to hate it.”
Many publishers say they support a move to immediate public access but criticize the new US policy. “We would have preferred to chart our own course to open access without a government mandate,” says Bertuzzi. Six of ASM’s journals are already open access, with the others to follow by 2027.
The Association of American Publishers, a leading trade group, complained in a statement that the policy arrived “without formal and meaningful consultation or input from the public…on a decision that will have wide ramifications, including a serious economic impact”. (White House officials say they have met with publishers big and small over the past year to discuss the change.)
Others have taken a wait-and-see approach. Sudip Parikh, CEO of AAAS, which publishes the Science family of journals, says “it is too early to tell if this direction will have an impact on our journals”. (AAAS publishes a fully open access journal, Scientists progressand in 2021 its paywall Science journals began to allow authors to deposit near-final peer-reviewed manuscripts into institutional repositories upon publication.)
The impact of the new requirement could vary depending on which of the more than 20 US funding agencies are funding the author’s research. Each agency must finalize its policy by the end of 2024 and implement it by the end of 2025.
The policy is not intended to mandate a particular business model for publishing, Alondra Nelson, acting director of the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP), said in an interview with ScienceInitiated. For example, it will not require federally funded researchers to publish only in paid open access journals. Researchers who publish in subscription journals might be able to satisfy the rule by depositing the near-final, peer-reviewed, accepted version in a public repository or other agency-approved outlet. Journals will still be able to keep their final, published version of an article behind a paywall. (But some scholars say that only the final published version is adequate for scientific purposes. Not-quite-final, “author-accepted” versions may lack final editing, typesetting, and formatted data tables. )
Nelson says the OSTP is acutely aware of concerns about who will pay the costs associated with the new policy, particularly if publication in a fee-paying journal becomes widespread practice. Some worry that US policy—combined with similar policies adopted in Europe and elsewhere—would accelerate the rise of such journals, ultimately making publication more difficult for authors with modest or no grants, especially those working in underfunded institutions and in developing countries.
The OSTP states in a blog post that it wants to “ensure that public access policies come with support for the most vulnerable members of the search ecosystem.” Agencies could, for example, allow researchers to use grant funds to cover open access publishing costs — as some already do — or could fund the expansion of public repositories, Nelson says. “We are not naive to the challenges we face,” she says. “The implementation of any new policy is essential.”
The new policy reflects the profound changes that have rocked academic publishing since the public access debate began in the United States more than 25 years ago. Second, subscription-print journals were the primary means of disseminating research results, and publishers fiercely resisted any policy changes that threatened an often highly profitable business model. But pressure from university libraries tired of paying escalating subscription fees and patient groups unhappy about having to pay to read taxpayer-funded biomedical studies have helped catalyze serious discussion about policy change. At the same time, the rise of the Internet has fueled publishing experiments, such as open access journals and the publication of freely accessible “preprints” that have not been peer reviewed.
In Washington, DC, these changes have prompted Republicans and Democrats to urge the federal government to revise its access policies. In 2013, then-President Barack Obama tried to find a compromise – via the one-year embargo rule – between publishers and open access advocates.
But many, including Biden, then Obama’s vice president, were unhappy with the deal. In a 2016 speech, for example, Biden noted, “Taxpayers fund $5 billion a year in cancer research, but once it’s out, almost all of that is behind it. [pay]walls. Tell me how it moves the [scientific] process faster.
Former President Donald Trump’s administration has also considered requiring immediate public access. And several developments in recent years have increased the pressure for an overhaul. In 2019, the US National Cancer Institute’s “Cancer Moonshot” research program, which Biden helped create under Obama, required recipients to write papers developed with its funding for free. In 2018, a group of European science funders called Coalition S unveiled a similar policywhich will take full effect in January 2025. (Coalition S imposes an additional requirement that publishers waive copyright; existing and new US policies do not.) And in 2020, publishers agreed to make all articles relevant to COVID-19 in open access, at least temporarily.
Now, the new US rules will apply to a substantial part of the world’s academic literature – and hundreds of thousands of new academic papers will be freely available to everyone without delay. In 2020, OSTP estimates federal research funds produced between 195,000 and 263,000 published papers, or about 7–9 percent of the 2.9 million papers published worldwide that year. And because the policy now applies to any federal agency that funds research — not just those spending $100 million or more a year — the free material could also include work funded by national endowments for the arts. and the humanities. The OSTP says agencies could also decide that the rule covers other documents, such as book chapters and conference proceedings, that are peer-reviewed.
Analysts say it’s difficult to predict how the change will ultimately affect the finances of specific journals, publishers and researchers. In some journals, for example, only a small fraction of the articles might be the product of US funding. And academic libraries might still be willing to pay subscription fees, even if their faculty can read the same articles for free elsewhere, if publishers offer a better interface, search functions or other services.
Bertuzzi, however, says the new policy is likely to have a global impact that will be hard to ignore, as “the US government is the 800-pound gorilla in the room.”