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White House Unveils Long-Awaited Public Access Policy

In a victory for open access advocates, the White House science office today released a long-awaited policy aimed at sharing the results of federally funded research with the public. The policy will require that science agencies make papers that they fund freely available online within 12 months after the results appear in a journal.

The policy follows several years of consultations and a petition to the White House from open access advocates last year. It appears to have found a middle ground between the two sides in a decadelong debate over so-called "open access"—the issue of whether and when scientific papers funded with taxpayer dollars should be available, for free, to the public. Traditionally, publicly funded scientists have published their work in scholarly journals that charge fees for access to the papers. That system has broken down in recent years, however, with the advent of digital technologies and new research funding models. Many journals and scientific societies have resisted complete and immediate open access, arguing that it will destroy the revenue streams they need to survive.

The new federal directive is a "landmark" and a "watershed moment," declared a press release from the Scholarly Publishing and Academic Resources Coalition, an open access lobbying group. The Association of American Publishers, which has called some public access mandates illegal and said they threaten the viability of journals, said the directive "outlines a reasonable, balanced resolution of issues around public access to research funded by federal agencies."

The six-page directive from the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP) says that agencies that spend more than $100 million on research must "develop a plan to support increased public access to the results of research funded by the federal government," including papers published in peer-reviewed journals. Each agency must come up with a draft plan within 6 months that meets several requirements. For example, it must leverage existing archives, strive to partner with journals, make it possible to access digital data, optimize the ability to search and archive papers, describe how to enforce compliance, and find ways to carry out the plan within the agency's existing budget.

The OSTP directive is similar to a 2008 National Institutes of Health (NIH) policy that requires investigators to deposit their peer-reviewed manuscripts in NIH's PubMed Central archive for posting within 12 months after they appear in a journal. But the OSTP policy does not spell out exactly where the papers will be posted and how they will be indexed. One option, for example, would be for an agency such as the National Science Foundation (NSF) to add links to published papers to its grants database. Another might be to add links to papers that investigators have posted on a university archive.

NSF and other agencies issued statements supporting the policy but not specifying how they will comply. The details "could vary by discipline, and new business models for universities, libraries, publishers, and scholarly and professional societies could emerge," NSF's statement says.

Myron Gutmann, head of NSF's social, behavioral, and economic sciences directorate, says that some NSF divisions are "experimenting with things," but that officially NSF doesn't have any agency-wide plan in the works. "You could imagine an approach with a repository like PubMed Central; you could imagine a distributed approach with a database linking to outside things. You could imagine a hybrid. But we haven't gotten that far," Gutmann says. Catherine Woteki, undersecretary for the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Research, Education, and Economics division, says her agency hopes to learn from NIH's experience with PubMed Central. "There is software we might be able to adapt for our purposes," she says.

The Association of American Publishers praised the directive's emphasis on working with publishers and the fact that the 12 month embargo is only a guideline that agencies can "tailor" for particular scientific fields or for their mission. Martin Frank, executive director of the American Physiological Society, which has been critical of many open access efforts, also likes the fact that the directive calls for linking to a paper in the journal's own archive. That is important because it draws readers to society Web sites with information such as notices of meeting as well as advertising. It could also save money, Frank says. "You don't have to create a PubMed Central," he argues.

Scholarly Publishing and Academic Resources Coalition Executive Director Heather Joseph says for her group, a key part of the OSTP directive is that it requires that papers be made available in a way that allows for text mining, or searching full text and data. At the same time, the directive falls short of a bill introduced this month in the House of Representatives called the Fair Access to Science and Technology Research Act (FASTR); it would make federally funded research papers available after just 6 months. "FASTR is better," Joseph says. But "all things being equal, this [the OSTP directive] is an enormous step forward by this administration."