Journal Publishers Reckon with New Federal Guidance

According to guidance from the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP) released on August 28, all federally funded research should be made available to the public for free access and use upon publication. Some large scholarly journal publishers are on board with the suggestions, which have been in the works for more than a decade. But other sources said that the new policy shouldn’t be one-size-fits-all.

Open Access logoThe government has spoken: According to guidance from the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP) released on August 28, all federally funded research should be made available to the public for free access and use upon publication.

It could be an influential dictate. As OSTP stated in an early August report, “Economic Landscape of Federal Public Access Policy,” federal agencies commit about $150 billion to research and development per year, of which $85 billion was dedicated to research in 2020. Most of that funding went into scientific research, though a small portion—less than a half billion dollars—was dispensed by two arts and humanities agencies, the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH) and the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA).

Moreover, there are tens of thousands of journals publishing literally millions of articles each year. The OSTP report quotes an estimate by the International Association of Scientific, Technical, and Medical Publishers (STM) that “open access journal revenue will…constitute around $1.1 billion of all scholarly publication outputs” by 2024. Outsell, a data company, estimated the worldwide scholarly publishing business was valued at $28 billion in 2019.

Some large scholarly journal publishers are on board with the suggestions, which have been in the works for more than a decade.

“In line with our mission to help researchers and healthcare professionals advance science and improve health outcomes for the benefit of society, Elsevier actively supports open access to research,” said a spokesperson for the publishing giant in a prepared statement, which claims almost 2,700 journals. “We look forward to working with the research community and OSTP to understand its guidance in more detail.”

A spokesperson from Wiley, which publishes about 2,000 journals, struck the same tone.

“Overall, we welcome the OSTP’s policy mandate, and we have begun work to better understand this new guidance and assess its implications. We remain committed to making research as inclusive, accessible, and equitable as possible,” said the spokesperson, who asked not to be named.

But historian Karin Wulf, Beatrice and Julio Mario Santo Domingo Director and Librarian, John Carter Brown Library at Brown University, said that the new policy shouldn’t be one-size-fits-all.

“In my view, journals are not all alike, publishers are not all alike, and disciplines are not all alike,” she told LJ.

Wulf, who notes she’s also been a publisher, says that though it’s the STEM disciplines that get attention, humanities scholarship faces challenges, too. “The work and the skills and the costs are very, very different in the mostly small publisher nonprofit humanities world,” she said. “Humanists have been working intensively to get public attention to our much needed work for a long time. So public access is a great thing! The challenge is how that is measured and the terms of the policy.”



Though the timing caught observers by surprise, the writing has been on the wall—or at least in U.S. government memoranda—since 2013.

That year, as Library Journal reported, then–OSTP director John P. Holdren issued guidance that served as a precursor to the policy released in August. More than 20 agencies were instructed to develop plans supporting public access to the results of federally funded research, though the material didn’t have to be released immediately; the government allowed for a 12-month embargo period in which publishers could restrict the full text of articles after publication.

The pandemic helped establish the value of immediate release, OSTP official Alondra Nelson told the Scholarly Kitchen, an online publication put out by the Society for Scholarly Publishing.

The COVID-19 pandemic “offered a powerful case study of the benefits of delivering research results and data rapidly to the public,” she said. “It showed why the insights of new and cutting-edge research stemming from the support of federal agencies should be immediately available—not just in moments of crisis, but in every moment; not only to fight a pandemic, but to advance all areas of knowledge.”

Wiley agreed with that assessment.

“We know that high-quality peer-reviewed research can change lives, especially in the current moment when some of the largest challenges we face—like emerging diseases and climate change—are underpinned by science,” said the publisher’s spokesperson.

Though scientific research gets a great deal of attention, the government—through such organizations as the NEH—also funds scholarship in other areas, including education, historical research, and the arts, which will now also be free to access without a waiting period. Large publishers can subsidize journals devoted to these subjects by “bundling,” selling a group of publications at a flat rate to libraries and other institutions. However, smaller presses that publish a handful of publications, perhaps aimed at particular audiences or narrow specialties, don’t have that kind of financial protection.

Wulf, who formerly oversaw the William & Mary Quarterly, dedicated to early American history and culture, saw that firsthand.

“From my vantage in one discipline, publishing revenues were never carrying even the cost of the publication,” she said. “[For example,] my colleagues and I reviewed one submission, [which took] careful time and attention to move that to publication. That didn’t account for all the pre-submission consultation the author did by presenting the work at conferences—scientists are amazed by this, they think a conference paper is ready to be published whereas we are workshopping it!—and then even more intensively at a seminar where it is precirculated.”

“The point is that careful high-quality humanities scholarship is time- and skill-intensive,” she added. “This is a wholly different ecosystem than the one that big biomed occupies.”



Another concern comes from librarians, who worry—amid perennial battles for both money to purchase journals and decisions as to what journals they should subscribe to—that they’ll be caught in the middle.

“The relationship between librarians and journal publishers has been fraught for a long time. Journal content isn’t published in a traditionally competitive marketplace—if an article is published by, say, Wiley, it can’t be purchased from any other provider. So that puts publishers in a strong pricing position,” Rick Anderson, university librarian at Brigham Young University, told LJ. (Wulf and Anderson conducted the Scholarly Kitchen interview with OSTP’s Nelson.) “The population of journal publishers is very diverse—a few are huge multinational private corporations, while many more are smaller, nonprofit operations, and others are somewhere in between. It’s a complex ecosystem.”

The push to make research results free to read could force mergers between some of the smaller publishers and their larger colleagues, he suggested.

“I do think it’s likely this new guidance will increase the number of small, formerly independent journal publishers either entering into service agreements with large commercial publishers, or simply being acquired by them,” he said. “The harder it is for small publishers to keep selling their content, the more pressure is put on their revenue streams.”

For its part, Wiley said it is focusing on offering scholars an outlet for their work, regardless of financial considerations.

“For many subject communities, like the social sciences and humanities, transformative agreements have allowed a greater number of authors to publish their work via the open access publishing model whereas, in the past, these researchers may not have had the funding to do so,” the publisher said. “Over the past several years, we have expanded our Under Review program with Authorea, which enables authors to benefit from early exposure to their research in the form of a preprint. For our subscription articles, we have made abstracts free to read and we have recently made the decision to put our article references in front of the paywall, which will be visible next year.”

The large publishers approached did not address journal finances. Wiley skirted a question about costs in the interview, and both Elsevier and Taylor & Francis offered only prepared materials in response to interview requests. A representative of another large publisher spoke only on background and didn’t discuss pricing. Anderson said that prices in the sciences have tended to rise “7 to 9 percent each year.”

For Wulf, the impact of the Nelson memo remains to be seen.

“Public access is a great thing,” she said. “The challenge is how that is measured and the terms of the policy.”

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