White House Office of Science and Technology Policy Director Kelvin Droegemeier

A group representing academic publishers has written a letter to US science adviser Kelvin Droegemeier protesting a rumoured change to government open-access requirements.Credit: Kim Shiflett/NASA

A rumour that the White House is considering a policy that would make all federally funded studies free to read as soon as they are published has prompted a protest from academic publishers.

Two groups that represent publishers in the United States and around the world sent letters to the US government on 18 December opposing any policy that would mandate immediate open access. The publishers told the administration that such a move would hinder the peer-review process, stifle innovation, and tip the publishing business into chaos.

According to the widely-discussed rumour, whose origin is unclear, the administration of President Donald Trump is drafting an executive order that would force the change in publishing practices. This would follow an effort led by European funders — called Plan S — which will require that research they fund be open access immediately on publication, with liberal licensing terms.

It is not clear whether the rumoured US policy would mirror Plan S, or merely mandate that research be made free to read.

But requiring a similar policy for studies funded by the United States government would “effectively nationalize the valuable American intellectual property that we produce and force us to give it away to the rest of the world for free”, the Association of American Publishers (AAP) in Washington DC wrote to President Donald Trump. More than 125 publishers and scientific societies signed the letter, including the American Chemical Society, the New England Journal of Medicine, and the publishing giants Elsevier and Wiley.

In tandem, the International Association of Scientific, Technical, and Medical Publishers (STM) in Oxford, UK, expressed “strong opposition to any such proposal” in a letter to Trump’s science adviser, Kelvin Droegemeier, and members of the National Science and Technology Council.

Kristina Baum, a spokesperson for the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy, declined to comment on whether the government was considering changing its open-access policy.

Scientists react

The potential policy change has fuelled the fierce debate between scientists who favour open-access publishing and publishers of subscription journals, many of whom publish some open-access work but say they would struggle to make their business sustainable if all papers were published this way. That debate has intensified over the last year, as publishers and funders have negotiated over the proposal for Plan S.

In 2013, President Barack Obama’s administration introduced a policy that requires taxpayer-funded research to be made freely available online within 12 months of its publication in a journal. But several scientists who advocate for open access say the current policy does not go far enough — and they countered the publishers’ arguments against the changes the White House is said to be considering.

“I welcome the rumored policy,” tweeted John Wilbanks, the chief commons officer at the non-profit research organization Sage Bionetworks in Seattle, Washington. “I work at a *really well funded* non-traditional research organization. We still can’t afford journal access subscriptions.”

“I really doubt that most of those scientific and medical organizations made any attempt to poll their members about this issue,” says Steven Salzberg, a computational biologist at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, Maryland. “They presume that they can speak for all members, but on this issue, I think they are speaking directly against the interests of their members.”

Details ‘not yet known’

Springer Nature, which publishes Nature, declined to comment on the rumour and referred press queries to STM. (Nature’s news team is editorially independent of its publisher.)

The American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS), which publishes Science and other journals, did not sign the AAP’s letter. “As a nonprofit scientific society and global publisher, AAAS seeks to engage constructively on conversations about open access. Since details of any potential change to policy are not yet known, we are unable to further comment at this time,” spokesperson Tiffany Lohwater said in a statement.

The Scholarly Publishing and Academic Resources Coalition, a group that represents more than 200 US college and university libraries, said on 19 December that its members “wholeheartedly endorse updating current policy and eliminating the unnecessary 12-month waiting period”.