White House: Make Public Access to Research Immediate

On August 25, the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP) released new guidance calling for all federally funded research to be made available to the public for free access and use upon publication. The memorandum on Ensuring Free, Immediate, and Equitable Access to Federally Funded Research advises all federal agencies to eliminate the current 12-month embargo period on the outputs of taxpayer-supported research and the data that supports it, to establish transparent procedures in doing so, and to coordinate with OSTP to ensure its equitable delivery. 

OSTP sealOn August 25, the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP) released new guidance calling for all federally funded research to be made available to the public for free access and use upon publication. The memorandum on Ensuring Free, Immediate, and Equitable Access to Federally Funded Research advises all federal agencies to eliminate the current 12-month embargo period on the outputs of taxpayer-supported research and the data that supports it, to establish transparent procedures in doing so, and to coordinate with OSTP to ensure its equitable delivery. Under the optional embargo, journal publishers could restrict the full text of articles—usually for a year, but sometimes up to 18 months—after publication, during which time only paid subscribers could access the material. This guaranteed publishers a subscription base, but resulted in often critical information being withheld from individuals or institutions who could not afford the cost of journals.

In addition to opening information to meet immediate needs—a critical consideration during health crises, among other issues—new policy guidelines seek to address longstanding discriminatory structural inequities. Race, age, disability status, geography, economic background, and gender have historically posed barriers to accessing scientific research. Often colleges and institutions that serve marginalized populations lack the funding to pay for the results of the very work their stakeholders help subsidize as taxpayers.

Agencies are to fully implement updated policies, including ending embargoes, no later than December 31, 2025.

 

BUILDING ON THE HOLDREN MEMO

The memorandum, issued under OSTP Deputy Director Dr. Alondra Nelson—who began her tenure in February—continues the work begun by the 2013 OSTP Memorandum on Increasing Access to the Results of Federally Funded Research, issued under then-Director John P. Holdren. The Holdren memo did much to strengthen public access, directing more than 20 agencies with more than $100 million in annual research and development expenditures to develop plans that supported increased public access to the results of federally funded research—specifically scholarly publications and digital data. As of this year, all agencies subject to the 2013 memo, as well as additional agencies not included in the original guidelines, have developed and implemented public access policies.

However, public feedback has repeatedly pointed to the limitations of the 12-month embargo period, which was not addressed in the Holdren memo. A report from OSTP that accompanied the most recent policy guidelines, Economic Landscape of Federal Public Access Policy, outlines changes in the scientific research landscape over the past nine years. These include the gradual move away from subscription-based models of academic journal use, the growth of open access publishing models, the expansion of online platforms for the dissemination of scholarly knowledge and increase in use of preprint repository services, and the ability of publishers to pivot to open access models—the voluntary removal of embargoes during the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic being one of the clearest examples. The report also explicitly elaborates on the potential impact of removing the current embargo period, noting that societal and economic benefits would “greatly exceed” costs such as increased article publishing charges (APCs).

“In the Holdren memo, it focused on the creation of data management and sharing plans,” explained Judy Ruttenberg, Association of Research Libraries (ARL) senior director of scholarship and policy. “The new Nelson memo puts timeframes and expectations on the sharing of research data that are much more specific.”

Scientific integrity has been a large part of OSTP’s recent messaging, especially during the Biden administration, noted Heather Joseph, executive director of the Scholarly Publishing and Academic Resources Coalition (SPARC), a longtime advocate for an open, accessible research environment. And the adoption of Plan S—Europe’s initiative for open access publishing launched in September 2018—also increased pressure in the United States to open scholarly research.

The need for a more rapid turnaround of information, particularly the results of scientific research, was thrown into sharp relief when COVID became an international health crisis. OSTP and science ministers from a dozen other countries were forced to negotiate directly with publishers to get open text and data from just-published coronavirus-related articles for agencies and health care professionals, Joseph said. Although the publishers did drop embargo periods in response, “that takes time,” she noted. “You’ve got to locate those articles, they had to be put into machine readable format, and they had to be put into a place where the corpus could be text and data mined. You lose time on that, and it costs.”

Many publishers stated that they would make articles open for the duration of the COVID crisis—a period which has yet to be defined, and a need that has been compounded by the recent outbreak of monkeypox. “How many times do you have to be in a position of ‘only in the event of emergency do we break the glass,’ and then ask permission to access articles reporting on the results of research we funded?” Joseph wondered.

 

LEVELING THE FIELD

The memorandum and its accompanying commentary clearly reflect OSTP’s goal of equity, one shared by many associations that have been working toward opening up scholarly output. “We’ve been spending a lot of time in the library community over the last several years trying to understand and unpack the essential relationship between openness and equity,” said Joseph. “And making sure that what we’re doing is not just open for open’s sake, but open in order to achieve a more equitable research communication system and structure.”

The new guidance specifically calls for an emphasis on solutions that don’t automatically call for Gold Open Access APCs in order to publish, or otherwise disadvantage underserved scholarly communities, early career researchers, or anyone who can’t afford APCs no matter the cost. The aim is not to perpetuate or redefine “a system where some people can now afford to publish and some can’t,” Joseph emphasized.

Agencies such as the Department of Energy, the National Institutes of Health (NIH), and the National Science Foundation (NSF) have already launched programs that focus on awarding grants to support early-career researchers, and to further racial and gender diversity among award applicants. OSTP and the National Science and Technology Council Subcommittee on Open Science (SOS), re-established in July after its charter expired at the end of 2021, will work with publishers, scholarly societies, and stakeholders including researchers, academic institutions, libraries, and members of the public to coordinate support for the move to open access. The new memo also calls for harmonization of infrastructure across federal funders.

But not all the needed solutions for achieving parity in the research cycle are spelled out in the memo. Administrators and libraries will need to consider how to ensure full access for institutions with budgets of all sizes. “I’m not expecting the memo to answer that, but it remains a long-term, very serious question,” said Association of Research Libraries (ARL) President K. Matthew Dames, Edward H. Arnold Dean of the Hesburgh Libraries, University of Notre Dame, IN. “Libraries do need to be front and center in the room as one of the stakeholders.”

 

NEW LANDSCAPE FOR LIBRARIES

Academic libraries will have much to consider about how resources and personnel will be allocated around changes in scholarly publishing, data management, research support, and relationships with other campus departments such as offices of research, IT, and computing, suggested Cynthia Hudson Vitale, ARL director of scholars and scholarship—”just getting those stakeholders in a room together to discuss what are our current capacity and services and infrastructure, and where are we seeing potential gaps with even existing policies that we need to fill in?”

Libraries will “once again become compliance experts,” said Joseph, and should keep a clear line of communications open with researchers who will be impacted by the new guidelines—both those who were unaffected by previous guidelines, but may need to revamp research budgets as publishers work to offset lost revenue, and those who will now be able to participate with added institutional and funder support—as well as with administrators and offices of sponsored research. Libraries have traditionally helped researchers offset some publishing costs, and could potentially shift to serve as funding centers on campus.

Storing, sharing, and sustainably preserving the influx of data, however, promises to be complex and expensive, said Dames, ”in terms of intelligence, on-premises and off-premises storage, retention policies, user interface so that people can access it. These are conversations that we’ve been having here at Notre Dame, [and] to a degree across ARL.”

Repositories will need to be built out, with added interoperability between institutional and disciplinary repositories—which will require extra support from (and often for) IT departments. Where that support comes from will depend largely on institutional resources, and may require additional consortial backup or state funding, noted Erin Ellis, Association of College and Research Libraries (ACRL) president and associate dean of research and learning services at Indiana University, Bloomington. But “it’s in the best interest of the federal agencies, and in the best interest of the institutions, to make sure that that that kind of infrastructure is in place.”

And white much of the emphasis is on scientific research and data, humanists and researchers in the social scientists will need to navigate the new landscape as well. “For a lot of them, this will be a new world,” said Ellis. “There’s a whole niche of work to take care of: What will data mean for them? And what kind of repositories will that kind of data be guided to?”

 

MAKING CHANGE SUSTAINABLE

“Research is a partnership between higher education and the federal government in lots of ways,” said Ruttenberg. “The more commitment there is to faster public access, the more we have to really work on that long-term sustainable infrastructure for disseminating and engaging with that research.”

Researchers will need to reconsider how they present research budgets. Ellis suggests that funders enlarge incentive structures that reward institutions for supporting open access publications and open science products. “That could really go far in making sure some institutions can manage this change, and manage the increased scope of supporting researchers,” she told LJ.

ARL is currently working on NSF-funded research to collect retrospective expense information for six academic institutions that have data management and sharing requirements. The project builds on data cost work done by NIH, which has instituted its own data management and sharing policy to take effect January 25, 2023; ARL’s work will look at how those institutions made data publicly accessible and what the associated expenses were, with the aim of helping other institutions build budgets around the new requirements.

On the publishing side, many have seen the change coming, instituting open access models and affordable APCs in recent years. For those who haven’t, organizations like SPARC will help support them as they work out new options. It’s a good opportunity, said Joseph, for publishers to look at what they offer—the expertise that goes into peer review and editorial work, for example, and their communities of practice—to consider new models.

If libraries do choose to cancel subscriptions, Joseph suggests that they look for ways to reinvest those funds into scholarly societies and university presses that share the values of their institutions. “There’s a real opportunity and a responsibility on the part of the library community,” she said. “We have a lot of libraries that have been already thinking deeply about what opportunities they’re actually acting on—that commitment to not just pulling money out, but looking at how to have conversations with administrators about reinvestment.”

Stakeholders should keep their eyes on other changes to the information landscape as well, Dames noted. The cost of journals will likely continue to go up by 5 percent to 7 percent annually, but vendors may look to recoup costs further through monetized metrics, such as rankings and academic productivity data.

Despite not having all the answers in place, however, opening research results will have “a real, tangible impact on advancing critical conversations, critical work on COVID, on climate change, on all of these things affecting our world,” said Ellis. “Even if we don’t necessarily have the resources and tools at our disposal, we are well placed and well versed in how to do this kind of work.”

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Lisa Peet

lpeet@mediasourceinc.com

Lisa Peet is Senior News Editor for Library Journal.

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