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Kelvin Droegemeier (center), director of the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy, meeting with publishers in February about public access to journal articles

White House Office of Science and Technology Policy

Will Trump White House tear down journal paywalls? Many anxiously await a decision

Scientific publishers, universities, librarians, and open-access (OA) advocates are waiting anxiously to see whether the Trump administration will end a long-standing policy and require that every scholarly article produced with U.S. funding be made immediately free to all.

Such a mandate has long been fiercely opposed by some publishers and scientific societies that depend on subscription revenues from journals. But critics of paywalls argue they are expensive and outmoded, and that tearing them down is the best way to advance scientific research.

On 6 May, the deadline passed on a request from the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP) for public comments on ways to expand public access to the fruits of federally funded research, including published papers, data, and computer codes. In February, OSTP also asked for input on the benefits and challenges of making the roughly 220,000 papers produced annually by U.S.-funded researchers immediately free on publication, and on “effective approaches” to making that happen.

OSTP’s request came after scientific publishers and a U.S. senator reacted strongly to reports, never confirmed, that the White House was poised to issue a new policy mandating immediate OA. Current U.S. policy, established in 2013 after years of controversy and debate, generally allows scientists who get grants from the largest federal funding agencies, and the journals that publish their work, to wait up to 12 months before providing free access. Some researchers comply with the current policy by depositing their articles in repositories such as the PubMed database run by the National Institutes of Health.

The arguments for and against paywalls have been pointedly renewed in the comments submitted to OSTP. The debate was also rehashed at a series of invitation-only, private discussions with publishers and science groups that Kelvin Droegemeier, White House science adviser, has hosted in recent months, ScienceInsider has learned. OSTP has said almost nothing publicly about the matter, confirming only that it is now reviewing the comments. But some groups involved have been willing to share their impressions of the discussions with ScienceInsider.

Here are four takeaways on key remaining questions and what may lie ahead:

Costs, and who pays, are central.

It’s widely assumed that a shift to immediate OA would require a change in the business model: Instead of readers paying the costs of publication through subscriptions, researchers, their institutions, or funders would cover the costs of making an article immediately free. Many journals already offer that service by charging an article-processing charge (APC). APCs globally have recently averaged about $2000 per paper. But some selective journals have charged more than $5000, saying it reflected the high costs of evaluating the many manuscripts they receive, most of which they reject.

OA advocates argue the shift can be funded by repurposing funds already spent on subscriptions. But research-intensive universities—which get the lion’s share of the more than $40 billion that the U.S. government provides to universities for research and produce the most papers—would have to pay more in APCs than they do now in subscriptions. A 2016 analysis by the University of California and collaborators found that the total outlay by a single research-intensive institution could more than double, to more than $10 million annually.

In such cases, some universities and journals have asked whether the federal government will make up any shortfall. And some researchers wonder how authors without federal grants, or those working in fields that have relatively small grants, would pay for APCs.

The meetings with OSTP did not settle those questions, participants said. Still, “There was some really good conversations going on around that problem,” says Nick Campbell, vice president for funder relations at the publisher Springer Nature, who attended two of the meetings.

Others who attended the meetings say they felt assured that OSTP staff will examine closely the effect of any policy change on the financial sustainability of publishers, especially nonprofit scientific societies that often operate on thinner margins than commercial publishers.

Still, some participants remain puzzled over the divergent estimates of what it might cost to move to immediate OA. At a February meeting, OSTP staff suggested it would cost $100 million annually to make the shift, but didn’t provide the data explaining how that number was calculated, says Stefano Bertuzzi, chief executive officer of the American Society for Microbiology, which publishes 16 journals. In contrast, in its comments to OSTP, the International Association of Scientific, Technical, and Medical Publishers (STM) cited estimates starting at about $600 million annually, based on prevailing prices and industry guidelines.

“There are solutions for how to get to open access, if that’s the direction OSTP decides,” Bertuzzi says, “but we need to ensure that it’s an open and transparent process that takes into account the needs of the nonprofit publishing community.”

Despite such uncertainty, the meetings highlighted that “there are some very clear indications that the [publishing] ecosystem is ready to move” toward greater OA, Campbell says. Springer Nature is exploring making its flagship journal Nature OA on publication.

Any policy change isn’t likely to take effect quickly.

Many publishers are urging OSTP to go slow with any policy change—and the White House appears to be listening.

For example, David Weinreich, STM’s director of public policy for the Americas, says OSTP should avoid “creating this requirement [for immediate access] and then figuring out how to make it work.” Publishers are already expanding ways to make papers immediately free to read, he says, and STM has recommended preceding any mandate with pilot projects, given the potential complexity of moving some journals from subscriptions to APCs or other business models.

In the meetings, participants say OSTP spoke of a gradual phase-in, perhaps over as long as 5 years. And federal science agencies will likely need time to revise existing procedures, or write new ones, to implement a change in policy. After the 2013 policy was adopted, for example, it took some agencies years to implement it; a November 2019 report by the U.S. Government Accountability Office found that seven out of 19 agencies it reviewed still had work to do to help the public find articles deposited in open repositories.

Given such issues, the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics has urged OSTP to wait until federal agencies have fully implemented the 2013 policy, and monitored its impact, before making any changes.

The COVID-19 pandemic figures in the discussion.

The pandemic has prompted publishers to lower paywalls on new studies about COVID-19, at least until it is brought under control. That has emboldened OA advocates, who argue that this shift should become permanent after the pandemic ends and extend to all scientific literature, to accelerate research on other topics.

Some publishers would prefer that OSTP delay any announcement of a policy change until after the COVID-19 pandemic eases. The American Thoracic Society, which publishes four journals, cited the distractions and “severe economic impact” that academic societies are experiencing because of pandemic lockdowns, including the loss of revenue from professional meetings.

An immediate switch to full OA could face political pushback.

Although it appears the White House can impose a new policy without going through a formal rulemaking process, which would involve collecting more public comment, it’s possible that Congress could also get involved, particularly if lawmakers don’t like the change. And at least one key senator, Thom Tillis (R–NC), chairman of a Senate subcommittee on intellectual property rights, as well as 18 Republican members of the House of Representatives have already expressed concerns that immediate OA could hurt U.S. industrial and technological competitiveness.

In a 17 April letter to the Trump administration, Tillis warned that a shift to OA could mean that “American taxpayers would be effectively subsidizing China’s and other competitors’ free access to American IP [intellectual property] that was previously exported at a valuable trade surplus.” And in one of two other letters sent by House members to the administration, lawmakers wrote that “it is imperative to maintain the existing system that allows limited federal dollars to be spent directly on the underlying research, rather than the publication of results.”

But a comment submitted to OSTP from Cambridge University Press flipped the competitiveness argument. “America is a large producer of research and therefore the publication of America’s research output has been, to some degree, subsidized by subscriptions paid by the rest of the world,” wrote the U.K.-based publisher, which has been a pioneer of deals with U.S. university libraries to transition their spending on subscriptions to spending on immediate public access. “The move to open access will require America to pay the full costs of its research publishing. However, the costs of publishing are a tiny portion of the costs of research, and therefore the costs of moving to open access publication will be a tiny part of the economic gain that America gets from transitioning to open research.”