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White House moves on public access to research

This article by Dr Ginny Barbour was first published on 28 August 2022 in Campus Morning Mail.

The US Government has learnt the lessons of COVID-19, when immediate access to research became so important. This policy sets a signal that immediate open access is necessary, and embargoes are no longer acceptable

In a substantial game-changing move for open access globally, the US White House issued guidance last week that peer reviewed publicly funded research must be made immediately and freely available.

It builds on similar guidance in 2013 from the Obama administration that mandated federally funded research must be made available no later than 12 months after publication and also reflects previous priorities of the then Vice President Biden when in 2016 he launched the Cancer Moonshot. The language of the memorandum reflects many years of advocacy in the US, noting the positive role that access to research has in supporting equity and public trust in government science. The language makes clear that this is not open access for its own sake, but to support public access to research.

The guidance applies to around 400 US federal agencies that must now “update their public access policies as soon as possible, and no later than December 31st, 2025, to make publications and their supporting data resulting from federally funded research publicly accessible without an embargo on their free and public release.” Furthermore, the agencies must: “establish transparent procedures that ensure scientific and research integrity is maintained in public access policies;” and “coordinate with (the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy) to ensure equitable delivery of federally funded research results and data.”

The mechanism for making the research available is quite explicit: federal agencies are to develop plans that ensure “Peer Reviewed Scholarly Publications … are made freely available and publicly accessible by default in agency-designated repositories without any embargo or delay after publication.”  In addition, “Scientific Data underlying peer-reviewed scholarly publications resulting from federally funded research should be made freely available and publicly accessible by default at the time of publication”. The extension of open principles to data will bolster transparency in research.

This is a far reaching, impactful directive that will support integrity, reproducibility and equity in research. The language of the guidance makes it clear that the US Government has learnt the lessons of COVID-19, when immediate access to research became so important, but also notes the economic value of making research immediately accessible and its pivotal role in tackling other challenges – “cancer, clean energy, economic disparities, and climate change”.

By indicating that publications must be made available in “agency-designated repositories” the approach is explicitly supporting repository based [green] open access while at the same time noting that open access journals have a role to play. The background briefing notes “OSTP proposes that remaining agnostic on these models [of open access] would allow opportunities for business model innovation in this space while supporting zero-embargo public access to federally funded research publications and results”

Furthermore, there is explicit language about maximising equitable reach of public access to peer-reviewed scholarly publications, via “formats that allow for machine-readability and enabling broad accessibility through assistive devices.” Specifications about use and re-use rights and attribution clearly indicate the need for appropriate open licensing, such as through Creative Commons licenses, to enable further research impact.

It will be important to be vigilant about reactions to this policy. A decade ago, the Association of American Publishers attempted to stop open access in its tracks via the ill-fated Research Works Act. It was later revealed that there had been numerous financial donations from then-Reed Elsevier to one of the Bill’s co-sponsors. The Bill’s failure was chalked up to unprecedented coordination by researchers and advocacy organisations.

Much has changed in the decade since, with many publishers accepting open access as the default norm, although the way it is achieved and the costs to taxpayers, funders, and institutions are still under much debate and development. The interpretation of “reasonable publication costs” and support for the “costs associated with submission, curation, management of data” will be closely scrutinized by researchers, libraries, and publishers alike. Already Springer Nature has indicated that “funding agencies must increase their financial support for the publications in exchange for the research to be free to the public”.

Although only a small proportion of Australia research receives US federal agency funding (largely through collaboration and co-authorship) this policy sets a signal that immediate open access is necessary, and embargoes are no longer acceptable. As the directive notes: “years of public feedback have indicated that the primary limitation of the 2013 Memorandum is the optional 12-month embargo from public access of any publication.”

It is incredibly important to see this recognised specifically and builds on the policy of cOAlition S, whose own immediate OA policy has been in place since 2021. It will also likely accelerate efforts by other funders to strengthen their policies.

Dr Ginny Barbour is Director, Open Access Australasia ( e: director@oaaustralasia.org, w: https://oaaustralasia.org/ , Twitter: @openaccess_anz)

With thanks to the Open Access Australasia Executive Committee for their input