Last week, the White House’s Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP) provided new guidance to federal agencies to ensure that federally funded research is accessible to all. OSTP has been working on this policy for at least two years and, in response to OSTP’S request for information on the issue, UCS provided input on it in 2020. The guidance aligns with our recommendations to break down barriers and make federally funded research rapidly and widely accessible—which we hope can make work at US federal agencies more transparent and encourage more international scientific collaboration. The importance of this endeavor is underscored by the COVID-19 pandemic which highlighted the need for scientists to make research findings rapidly transparent to advance research and provide decisionmakers with evidence needed to make critical decisions. Requiring that federal research is accessible to everyone also promotes equity by breaking down barriers built up through financial privilege.
Simply put, this is the right thing to do.
How does it work?
According to OSTP’s guidance, federal agencies will have until December of 2024 to develop policies and plans to implement plans to make their research accessible. As the guidance states, federal agencies will need to “develop new, or update existing, public access plans as soon as possible, and submit them to OSTP and the Office of Management and Budget (OMB).”
The guidance for new policies asks not only that federal agencies explain how they will make peer-reviewed research publicly available, but how they will make that research accessible to all. Agency policies are directed to promote equitable access to the maximum extent possible. In addition to written publications, agencies are instructed to make studies’ underlying data publicly available as well. This should apply for data underlying peer-reviewed publications, as well as data that federal agencies have relied on more generally. The guidance does note that not all data may be made publicly available, such as data that may contain confidential information. Researchers will be provided funds to publish in open-access journals and ensure data is managed and archived appropriately.
The new guidance instructs federal agencies to ensure their public access policies maintain both research and scientific integrity. It therefore calls upon agencies to ensure their policies “support scientific and research integrity by transparently communicating to the public critical information, including that which is related to the authorship, funding, affiliations, and development status of federally funded research.” This data should be stored as metadata that will be made publicly available allowing the public to identify all funding used to conduct the research. This requirement represents a big step for research transparency because the public will now be able to easily identify who was involved in the research-–including authors and funders.
Why is this such a big deal?
Making research accessible to everyone is clearly important during a crisis such as the onset of a global pandemic. But even beyond pandemics and other crises, this move toward research transparency and accessibility represents a big step toward more global cooperation and collaboration in science. While many universities and colleges in the United States can afford access to peer-reviewed research journals, this is not the case for many scientists and experts across the world. In our current system, a scientist doing cancer research in another country might have a promising idea about furthering his or her research but find themselves stymied because they are not able to access the latest research in the United States. That kind of barrier represents a big, missed opportunity for society.
Even within the United States, I’m not able to access some of my own research publications without paying for them. For example, a publication from my own PhD research costs me $40 to access. That’s for just one research article—one, I might add, that I did the all the hard work on! Similarly, it doesn’t make sense that taxpayers in the United States who have, after all, funded federal research, can’t freely access it.
This guidance will make access to federally funded research more equitable, and its results and data more transparent. It will help to ensure that the work maintains research and scientific integrity standards. While it hasn’t drawn a lot of attention in the press, it’s an important change and a good policy. Perhaps best of all, by significantly widening access to a large amount of US research, this guidance and subsequent policy changes have a good chance of speeding the development of some new and impactful scientific findings, maybe even some that can save lives.