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US science to be open to all

Government mandates that taxpayer-funded research be freely available within 12 months.

The rumours have been buzzing around Capitol Hill since before last year’s election, and last week, supporters of open-access publication in the United States got most of what they wanted. The White House declared that government-funded research would be made free for all to read, rather than kept behind paywalls. However, those hoping that the government would require papers to be free from the time of publication were disappointed.

In a 22 February memo, John Holdren, director of the White House’s Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP), gave federal agencies until 22 August to produce plans for making the data and papers from the research they fund more accessible to the public. The move, he says, would “accelerate scientific breakthroughs and innovation” and boost economic growth. Agencies should aim to make research papers free by 12 months after publication — a concession to publishers, who say that a year’s delay is needed to maintain their revenue from subscriptions.

The policy applies to an estimated 19 federal agencies, which each spend more than US$100 million on research and development. It would roughly double the number of articles made publicly available each year to about 180,000, according to the Scholarly Publishing and Academic Resources Coalition, an open-access advocacy group in Washington DC, which called the memo a “landmark”. Until now, only the US National Institutes of Health (NIH) has required its research to be publicly available after 12 months.

The latest move is a response to the 2011 re­authorization of the 2007 America COMPETES Act, which included billions of dollars for science, and also charged the OSTP with improving public access to research (see ‘Into the open’). Another spur came in May 2012, when thousands petitioned the White House to require free access to journal articles arising from US taxpayer-funded research. Agencies such as the National Science Foundation and the Department of Energy have been laying the groundwork with publishers for the past 18 months, notes Fred Dylla, executive director of the American Institute of Physics, a publisher based in College Park, Maryland.

Credit: Source: M. Laakso & B.-C. Björk BMC Med. 10, 124 (2012)

It will probably be a year or two before any policies are implemented, says Catherine Woteki, chief scientist at the US Department of Agriculture. Agencies might model their plans on the NIH approach, in which a government-funded repository, PubMed Central, is used to house the free research. “There’s no sense in reinventing the wheel,” says Woteki.

But Dylla suggests that the full text of papers could reside on publishers’ websites, with agencies just providing links. The memo specifically encourages public–private collaborations, asks agencies not to duplicate existing mechanisms and requests that resources be found from existing budgets. These are hints, Dylla says, that the OSTP does not want to extend the PubMed Central approach. Some publishers resent that repository, which they see as deflecting attention from their own web pages.

The embargo time before papers are free could vary by discipline and journal, although agencies will have to justify any departure from the 12-month standard. In Europe, embargo times permitted in prospective public-access policies vary from 6 to 24 months. And just a week before the White House announcement, a bi­partisan bill was introduced into Congress that would mandate a 6-month embargo for all.

But Michael Eisen, a biologist and open-access advocate at the University of California, Berkeley, says that he is disappointed. “They had an opportunity to do something dramatically important, and instead they recycled a 5-year-old policy and went to great lengths to say that embargoes are critical for maintaining the publishing industry,” Eisen says. He would rather that research be made free immediately.

That is the approach being taken in the United Kingdom, where science minister David Willetts has championed a move to a system in which work is immediately free to read. The UK funding agencies plan to finance this ‘gold’ open-access route by diverting some 1% of the national research budget, and requiring that authors or their institutions use it to pay publishers up-front to make work public. That policy will start to take effect from 1 April, but will ramp up slowly over five years: only 45% of research will be immediately free to read this year.

The United Kingdom had hoped to jolt other governments into following its lead. “We maintain our belief that the gold route is the best means of promoting openness and collaboration,” says Willetts. But so far, researchers in the United States and the rest of Europe are not obliged to use science funds to make their work free immediately.


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Gold on hold 2013-Feb-26

Europe joins UK open-access bid 2012-Jul-17

Britain aims for broad open access 2012-Jun-19

White House petitioned to make research free to access 2012-May-25

Open access comes of age 2011-Jun-21

Open-access policy flourishes at NIH 2009-Apr-07

Related external links

OSTP memo on open access (PDF)

White House response to open-access petition

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Van Noorden, R. US science to be open to all. Nature 494, 414–415 (2013).

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