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Scientific Publishers Offer Solution to White House's Public Access Mandate

Open-minded. OSTP Director John Holdren's memo calls for public access to federally funded research papers.

M. Hicks/Science

A group of scientific publishers today announced a plan for allowing the public to read taxpayer-funded research papers for free by linking to journals' own websites. The publishers say that this will eliminate the need for federal agencies to archive the papers themselves to comply with a new government directive. Details are sketchy, however, and it's not yet clear whether the plan will accomplish everything that the government wants from agencies.

The plan is a response to a February memo from White House Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP) Director John Holdren that asks federal science agencies to come up with a plan by 22 August for making peer-reviewed papers that they fund freely available within 12 months. The memo would essentially extend a National Institutes of Health (NIH) policy that requires its grantees to submit copies of their papers to NIH's full-text PubMed Central (PMC) archive for posting after a delay of up to a year to protect journal subscriptions. Many publishers dislike PMC, however, because they say it is duplicative, infringes on copyright, and diverts readers from their own journal websites. So they have proposed an alternative that would offer a way to let the public see full-text articles without creating more PubMed Centrals.

Organized in part by the Association of American Publishers (AAP), which represents many commercial and nonprofit journals, the group calls its project the Clearinghouse for the Open Research of the United States (CHORUS). In a fact sheet that AAP gave to reporters, the publishers describe CHORUS as a "framework" that would "provide a full solution for agencies to comply with the OSTP memo."

As a starting point, the publishers have begun to index papers by the federal grant numbers that supported the work. That index, called FundRef, debuted in beta form last week. You can search by agency and get a list of papers linked to the journal's own websites through digital object identifiers (DOIs), widely used ID codes for individual papers. The pilot project involved just a few agencies and publishers, but many more will soon join FundRef, says Fred Dylla, executive director of the American Institute of Physics. (AAAS, which publishes ScienceInsider, is among them and has also signed on to CHORUS.)

The next step is to make the full-text papers freely available after agencies decide on embargo dates, Dylla says. (The OSTP memo suggests 12 months but says that this may need to be adjusted for some fields and journals.) Eventually, the full CHORUS project will also allow searches of the full-text articles. "We will make the corpus available for anybody's search tool," says Dylla, who adds that search agreements will be similar to those that publishers already have with Google Scholar and Microsoft Academic Search.

Why go to all this trouble instead of having agencies set up their own repositories for papers? For one thing, CHORUS will save money because it builds on an existing database for linking references called CrossRef that more than 4300 scholarly publishers now participate in, Dylla says. "We're anxious for agencies not to spend their precious research funds on the OSTP directive. We've rather they spend that money on research," he says. PMC costs NIH about $3.5 million a year, while FundRef will cost perhaps $1 million paid by publishers and cover all agencies, he says. He says it also makes sense to have publishers do the indexing because, "Who talks to authors? It's the publishers." At NIH, some grantees ignore the public access policy, and only about 75% of eligible papers are submitted to PMC, he notes.

Dylla, who says that his group has presented the proposal to an OSTP interagency working group on public access, admits "there are issues" such as how to ensure long-term access to the journal archives. But he says that in most cases when a journal changes hands or folds, the papers and their DOI links stay online (through a third-party archiving service, for example).

One leader for the open-access movement is reserving judgment about the CHORUS plan. Heather Joseph, executive director of the Scholarly Publishing and Academic Resources Coalition, says that she'd first like to see a more detailed proposal. (The publishers say that they will have a "proof of concept" by the end of August.) She's not convinced that CHORUS will meet the OSTP requirements that the public be able to download, analyze, and reuse full-text articles. "That's also why I am keen on seeing federal databases play a role in any solution," Joseph writes in an e-mail.