The White House Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP) recently released a memorandum to federal agencies concerning their public access policies. The guidance requires the results of all taxpayer-funded research to be made publicly accessible by 2025, updating previous guidance that directed federal agencies with more than $100 million in R&D expenditures to create strategies for increasing public access to the research and data funded by public support. This updated guidance for agencies is a key win for public access policies and supports data-driven innovation by improving the efficiency and integrity of federally funded research.
Public access policies determine the availability to the public of federally funded scholarly materials, including publications, data, and other research outputs. Since the 1980s under the Reagan administration, the government has supported access to the products of federally funded research. In 2013, a memorandum from the Obama administration directed larger federal agencies to provide access to scholarly publications and data resulting from such research.
Increased access to federally funded research helps expedite the innovation process and brings a number of positive social benefits. With public access, researchers from institutions of all sizes and financial standing will be able to access new information and use it to build new ideas. Public access also makes the scientific process more transparent to average citizens, promoting greater trust and integrity in scientific research.
Public access policies also create a number of economic benefits. Greater openness leads to efficiency gains in terms of labor cost savings associated with easier data collection and reduced need for duplication of data. Instead of five different research groups going through five identical data collection processes, researchers can focus on their actual studies. Moreover, public access enables the creation of new products and services and facilitates cross-discipline innovation, as researchers who might only have access to journals in their field can better access scholarship from other disciplines.
In addition to expanding public access policies to all agencies, the updated guidance ends a 12-month embargo period in which academic publishers could paywall federally funded research. OSTP argues that the majority of new research in the United States is published in journals and outlets that charge hundreds of dollars annually to read. For example, research funded by the National Institutes of Health (NIH) can remain behind paywalls in private journals such as JAMA or Nature, limiting the ability of researchers and members of the general public alike to benefit immediately from cutting-edge research findings.
The benefits of lifting any embargo became clear during the COVID-19 pandemic when government, industry, and researchers adopted an immediate public access policy for public health research that facilitated the flow of data and accelerated the rate of discovery and translation of science. A dashboard from the NIH provided numerous open-access data and computation resources from NIH and other federal agencies, as well as data from private sector actors. Data types included clinical studies, visualization tools, genomics research, and social science resources.
OSTP is considering how this updated guidance could disrupt the publishing industry. An economic analysis put out by the office in August 2022 shows that many actors around the world have already been moving toward new business models that account for an increase in open access policies and publishing. For example, publishers have already been moving away from subscription-based models of academic journal use by research institutions in favor of “transformative agreement models.” Under these models, research institutions pay publishers for open access publishing of their scientists’ scholarship. Another business model adopted by some publishers includes a tiered color system where different open access “colors” represent a different copyright, payer, and access combination. While OSTP remains agnostic on which business model might be best, the office should promote a model that ensures the publishing system remains stable and continues to promote high-quality peer-reviewed work. For example, to the extent research libraries save on journal costs, they could use those funds to pay for publishing in open-access journals.
Public access policies are likely to come with some costs, including increased fees to publish for researchers, increased federal expenditure to ensure compliance with public access policies, and lower revenues for publishers. OSTP estimates that the total cost to the American taxpayer will be minimal, accounting for less than 0.5 percent of total R&D expenditures in the United States. Still, there is disagreement among publishers about the ultimate impact of lifting the embargo period. SAGE Publishing found that removing the 12-month embargo did not negatively affect subscriptions, given larger shifts and adaptations happening industry-wide. At the same time, some publishing groups, like the Association of American Publishers, still have concerns about “business sustainability and quality.” It may yet be too soon to understand how this guidance will disrupt the publishing industry.
The United States has an opportunity to be a leader on public access policies. OSTP should proceed carefully, weighing the benefits of public access with potential costs. The collaborative response to COVID-19 between government and industry shows the value of public access to accelerating research. Depending on the results of this venture, policymakers should consider future ways to facilitate data sharing for other public interest issues, like clean energy innovation and further studies in health care. OSTP is on the right track to making scientific research open and accessible and bolstering the innovation process.
Image credit to Daniel Foster on Flickr.