The US government will make all research it funds open access as soon as it is published.
Many federal policy changes are well known before they are announced. Hints in speeches, leaks and quick access to reporters from major publications all serve to set the stage for eventual confirmation. But on Thursday, the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP) dropped a big one that seemed to surprise everyone. Starting in 2026, any scientific publication that receives federal funding must be openly accessible on the day of publication.
The move has the potential to further shake up the scholarly publishing industry, which has already embraced preprint archives, similar mandates from other funding bodies, and dramatically expanded access to publications during the pandemic.
The change was announced by Alondra Nelson, acting head of the OSTP (a permanent director is being confirmed by the Senate). The official policy is set out in an accompanying memorandum.
A clumsy story
The US government is likely to be the largest funder of scientific research in the world. For medical research, the US National Institutes of Health spends more than the rest of the top 20 organizations combined. Yet for decades the scientific publishing system was set up in such a way that the government (much less the people it represented) did not necessarily have access to the research it funded. Instead, access was based on paid subscriptions to the journals in which the work was published.
Two trends have undermined this limitation. One is the rise of open access journals, which charge researchers an upfront fee and then provide anyone with Internet access to the final research publication. The second is the trend towards “preprints”. Preprint servers, developed by researchers in physics and astronomy, provide access to manuscripts submitted to publishers for peer review. Their use in the biological sciences has expanded significantly during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Some people involved in scientific publishing feared that these trends would undermine the finances of the entire publishing industry, while others hoped to push them to open up all scientific publishing. This tension played out in the halls of Congress, where competing laws mandated or blocked open access to federal research. A kind of truce was concluded under the Obama administration. For federally funded research, publishers had two choices: either make the publication open access from the start, or have subscription-only access for a year before opening things up. Government-sponsored repositories were opened to house copies of articles that were not open access on the publisher’s site.
In the meantime, there was a strong growth in open access journals, and many subscription journals allowed authors to pay a fee to immediately open published articles. Most subscription journals also offered open-access COVID-related articles at no additional cost. The OSTP apparently decided that these adjustments prepared the industry to survive even higher levels of access.
The OSTP also argues that the benefits of such action to society would be significant. “When research is widely accessible to other researchers and the public, it can save lives, provide policymakers with the tools to make critical decisions, and generate more equitable outcomes across all sectors of society,” Nelson said. in his ad. The policy document elaborates on this by arguing that the COVID-19 pandemic has indicated that the benefits of immediate public access (as opposed to a one-year subscription only) are even greater.
Under the new policy, any agency funding more than $100 million in grants has 180 days to submit a revised policy to the OSTP; small agencies have one year to do so. These plans must imply that all publications resulting from this funding are deposited in publicly accessible repositories on the day of their publication in a scientific journal. They may still appear in subscription-only journals, but a copy must be made public. Separately, all data used in the publication must also be placed in a publicly accessible repository.
By the end of 2024, agencies must have plans to ensure that information about everyone involved in publications is also available in repositories. All data and documentation associated with publications must be associated with a digital identifier (such as a DOI). By the end of 2025, all these policies must be implemented.
To some extent, this overlaps with existing NIH policy, which allows authors to deposit preprint versions of their articles; publishers can still add value through formatting, embedded graphics and movies, and convenient cross-referencing with other studies, thus (potentially) justifying the price of subscriptions. Charging fees for publishing open access articles will also remain an option. So it won’t kill the science publishing industry overnight.
The most striking change is the immediacy of having a parallel copy available on the day of publication. But, in the longer term, having a system to identify and access the underlying data might be more important. Today, most publishers require relevant data to be shared, but often there is no formal way to enforce this requirement, and it is largely ignored. Making it a funding condition can obviously change that.
As is currently the case, enforcement of the new requirements will be key to the impact of this program. By the time a paper goes through peer review and is published, many people involved have already moved on to other projects. Taking the time to put their previous work in a repository doesn’t provide obvious rewards, so there will need to be an enforcement mechanism to drive adoption.