White House Memo Asks Agencies to Figure Out Open Access Publishing

February 26, 2013 | 6:55 pm
Francesca Grifo
Former contributor

Last Friday Dr. John Holdren, the director of the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy, released a memo directing the heads of executive departments and agencies to increase access to the results of federally funded scientific research, specifically “the direct results of federally funded scientific research are made available to and useful for the public, industry, and the scientific community. Such results include peer-reviewed publications and digital data.” He tasks agencies with greater than $100 million in annual conduct of research and development expenditures to develop a plan for how to do this in the next six months.

This has been a contentious issue within the scientific community for quite a long time. Many have long argued that, especially for research underwritten by taxpayers, open public access to scholarly journals would have a positive benefit, while others have worried, for example, about its effects on publishers. Research released last fall claims that 340,000 scholarly scientific articles were published by 6,713 open access journals during 2011, and that number is growing. Putting that in context as best I can – it seems about one half of 1 percent of scientific papers are now available through open access business models. The three most common are: published in subscription-based print journals with open access content, published in online-only journals with no charges, and published in online-only journals with an article-processing charge.

Why do business models matter? Well, for many scientific societies – especially the smaller ones – their business model depends on their revenue from journal publication. Is this a case of no free lunch? Someone somewhere along the chain from research to article will have to pay for the publishing of the papers. Although this can be much less costly now that we can do this without paper and ink, someone must still organize the peer review, perform general editing and citation indexing, and oversee the process. So perhaps we shall see an increase in the fees charged to authors.

This move by the White House is in response to an online petition on the White House website demanding free access over the Internet to scientific journal articles arising from taxpayer-funded research, which acquired 65,704 signatures. In a response to those who signed the petition, Dr. Holdren said “We wanted to strike the balance between the extraordinary public benefit of increasing public access to the results of federally-funded scientific research and the need to ensure that the valuable contributions that the scientific publishing industry provides are not lost.”

Bipartisan legislation introduced this month would require federally funded research to be available to the public within 6 months of publication. This memorandum gives federal agencies a 12-month embargo before offering access and allows agencies to petition for longer—although news coverage suggests that this compromise is not making everyone terribly happy. Also Jeffrey Beall suggested the fee-based models may well be leading to fraud and corruption of the entire process in a piece published in Nature last fall.

The NIH Public Access Policy might be a good place for agencies to turn for an example of a system that has been around for the last five years. It requires scientists to submit final peer-reviewed journal manuscripts that arise from NIH funds to the digital archive PubMed Central upon acceptance for publication and that they are accessible on the site no later than 12 months after publication.

The memo specifically directs that government-funded scientific research articles be “made available to and useful for the public, industry, and the scientific community”. Interesting choice of words given that so much of our frustration with the open government responses by agencies is that although strictly speaking they have made data sets available to us – they have fallen short on making the data useful for us. I hope, for example, we will see more searchable and accessible documents and fewer data dumps in obscure formats.

Also notable is the written timetable for implementation—requiring meetings and reports at very specific intervals. Too bad, despite our repeated urging, the White House’s Scientific Integrity Memorandum did not offer the same for the implementation of policies establishing rules for scientific openness and conduct at government agencies.