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The White House

Science groups, senator warn Trump administration not to change publishing rules

More than 125 scientific societies and journal publishers, as well as an influential U.S. senator, are urgently warning the Trump administration not to move forward with a rumored executive order that would make all papers produced by federally funded research immediately free to the public. In three separate letters, they argue such a move would be costly, could bankrupt many scientific societies that rely on income from journal subscriptions, and would harm the scientific enterprise.

The White House won’t comment on whether the administration is considering issuing an executive order that would change publishing rules, and society officials say they have learned no details—nor been asked for input. But if the murmuring is accurate, the order would represent a major change from current U.S. policy, which allows publishers to keep papers that report the results of federally funded studies behind a paywall for up to 1 year. That 2013 policy was the compromise result of a fierce battle between open-access advocates, who wanted free immediate public access to the fruits of federally funded research, and scientific societies and publishers, who argued such a policy would destroy a long-standing, subscription-based business model that has well served society and scientists.

The new letters restate that argument. “Going below the current 12 month ‘embargo’ would make it very difficult for most American publishers to invest in publishing these articles,” argues a letter to President Donald Trump released today by the Association of American Publishers in Washington, D.C., and signed by more than 125 research and publishing groups.

The administration shouldn’t make such “a precipitous move … without due consideration of the impact of such a policy on research and discovery and the costs to the taxpayer,” wrote Ian Moss, CEO of the International Association of Scientific, Technical, and Medical Publishers (STM) based in The Hague, Netherlands, in a letter today to Kelvin Droegemeier, head of the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP).

The association also contends that the 2013 policy should stay in place because there’s no reliable evidence that it is not working well enough to provide public access to journal articles. Some agencies did not fully implement the policy until 2 years ago, and because it takes time for federally funded researchers to complete and publish their work, “We’re just starting to see the widespread impact of those policies on the scholarly communication ecosystem,” says David Weinreich, STM’s director of public policy for the Americas.

Senator Thom Tillis (R–NC), who leads a Senate Judiciary Committee subpanel that deals with intellectual property, has also expressed concern. “If the current policy is changed—particularly without benefit of public hearings and stakeholder input—it could amount to significant government interference in an otherwise well-functioning private marketplace that gives doctors, scientific researchers and others options about how they want to publish these important contributions to science,” he wrote in a 12 December letter to Secretary of Commerce Wilbur Ross and Mick Mulvaney, head of the White House’s budget office.

Tillis also wrote that he would “greatly appreciate a briefing on the proposed plan.” That’s a sentiment widely shared among society and publishing officials, who say they’ve been frozen out of deliberations about a change in policy. “We hope that policies will not advance,” Moss wrote, “until we are able to discuss the impact of any specific proposal on our ability to continue supporting the quality and integrity of research outputs.” 

Open-access advocates weighed in with their own statement on 19 December. “Like others, we have heard rumors about a possible new Administration Open Access Policy, said Heather Joseph, executive director of the Scholarly Publishing and Academic Resources Coalition (SPARC) in Washington, D.C., in a statement. We wholeheartedly endorse updating current policy and eliminating the unnecessary 12-month waiting period for the public to gain access to the outputs of taxpayer-funded scientific research, including data, articles, and the supporting computer code. … Without a zero-embargo policy, the U.S. stands to fall substantially behind many other nations that have already introduced strong open access policies.”

SPARC has posted letters of support asking the Trump administration to adopt a strong open-access policy. The letters came from 21 Nobel laureate scientists, nearly 3000 other scientists, and patient and disease groups, among others.

The rumored policy shift comes as a coalition led by European funders continues work to implement by 2021 a policy—known as Plan S—that would require immediate open access to journal articles from research they finance. Plan S has sparked discussion worldwide about how to accelerate a transition of paywalled journals to free-to-read ones. The United States has not joined the Plan S coalition, and there was no immediate indication that it now plans to do so.

Kristina Baum, communications director for OSTP, said in a statement to Science: “We do not comment on internal deliberative processes that may or may not be happening. … U.S. federal research funding agencies are currently operating under the 2013 [policy.]” She added that a subcommittee of the National Science and Technology Council, a White House coordinating body that OSTP serves, “continues to learn about opportunities to maximize access to publicly funded research.”

*Update, 19 December, noon: This story has been updated to include a comment from SPARC.

*Update, 29 January 2020, 2:20 p.m.: This story has been updated to note the letters of support for a policy change, gathered by SPARC, which announced the letters on 27 January.