Last week, the Biden administration announced a new policy designed to expand access to results of the latest published scientific reports, such as new findings about Covid. Updated policy guidelines may sound like a snoozefest, but in this case they deserve your attention.
The dirty little secret of scientific publishing is that companies have found a way to charge people again for something they’ve already paid for. The vast majority of scientific research in this country is funded with money collected from American taxpayers. All of those experiments, all of those in-depth analyses — yep, you paid for that. Scientists diligently write up the results of that work, shop the manuscript around to various research journals, and get it published so other people can learn from or build on what they’ve done.
But in most cases, only subscribers can read those papers. And subscriptions to these journals are not cheap. In 2019, the University of California famously canceled its system-wide subscription to all journals from the publisher Elsevier, revealing in the process that it had been paying more than $10 million annually to ensure that scientists at all of its universities could access those journals.
For those of us who don’t work at a university and might want to read a few articles to learn about the latest research into a particular disease, for example, we have to shell out for each article. Science, one of the most influential journals in the research world, will gladly give you access to a single article for $30 a pop. JAMA, a leading medical journal, will do the same for $40. That adds up fast.
Over the past couple of decades, some scientists have been pushing for open-access publishing, a model in which papers are freely accessible upon publication after manuscript authors pay an upfront fee (ostensibly to cover the costs of managing the peer-review process and publishing, though the scientists who actually perform the work of peer review will be quick to tell you they get no payment for it).
Nearly a decade ago, the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP) used its clout to direct all federal funding agencies to embrace open-access publishing for taxpayer-funded research. But they gave science publishers a huge concession: a 12-month “embargo period” during which papers could be kept behind a paywall. After one year, those papers had to be freely accessible.
That change was enormously helpful in expanding access to scientific research. But the 12-month delay was problematic from the start. In the era of Covid, when data needs to be available to the entire research community immediately to help address the pandemic, a year-long delay would have greatly slowed progress. (To their credit, some scientific publishers eliminated paywalls for Covid-related content, at least for a period of time. And researchers used preprints to get results to colleagues and the public even faster.)
Now, the OSTP has struck again, expanding access more dramatically. With the new policy, the 12-month embargo period is gone, and all federally funded research has to be available to anyone immediately upon publication. The data underlying those publications also has to be shared to make it easier for other scientists to check each other’s work.
In an OSTP statement explaining the rationale for the updated guidelines, Christopher Steven Marcum and Ryan Donohue wrote: “In too many cases, discrimination and structural inequalities — such as funding disadvantages experienced by minority-serving colleges and institutions — prevent some communities from reaping the rewards of the scientific and technological advancements they have helped to fund.” The revised policy was designed to overcome those challenges so that “all communities [can] take part in America’s scientific possibilities,” they added.
Michael Eisen, a leading advocate for open-access scientific publishing, applauded the change in a Twitter thread. “The reason this is a big deal is that it is the first time, in over twenty years of #openaccess initiatives from both Congress and White House, that the policy focused exclusively on what is best for the public, without any baked in concessions to publishers,” he wrote.