The US government announces major changes in open access policy

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The new policy recommends that federal agencies ensure that their grantees’ research results are made available in a public repository promptly after publication.Photo credit: Shutterstock

US research agencies should make the results of federally funded research freely available as soon as they are published, President Joe Biden’s administration has announced. This is a significant departure from current guidelines, which allow for a delay of up to a year before papers must be published outside of paywalls.

With the United States being the world’s largest research funder, the change — which is expected to be implemented by the end of 2025 at the latest — is a boost for the growing Open Access (OA) movement to make scientific research publicly available. This has already been greatly encouraged by Plan S, an unembargoed indictment of OA led by European funders. “This is a very big deal,” says Peter Suber, who directs the Harvard Open Access Project at Harvard University in Cambridge, Massachusetts. “This new US policy is a game changer for scholarly publishing,” adds Johan Rooryck, executive director of the cOAlition S group of funders behind the European-led plan.

The policy change was announced Aug. 25 in a guidance issued to federal agencies by the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP). The OSTP recommends that agencies ensure that their grantees’ peer-reviewed work is made available promptly after publication in an agency-approved public repository. Each agency can develop its own protocols on exactly how this should be done – a process that is expected to be completed over the next six months to a year.

“The American people fund tens of billions of dollars of cutting-edge research annually,” Alondra Nelson, acting director of the OSTP, said in a statement. “There should be no lag or barrier between the American public and the return on their research investments.”

The White House does not insist that articles in scientific journals be produced OA. But as future US research articles become immediately available in repositories, publishers may fear libraries canceling journal subscriptions. They could respond by shifting more toward open-access publishing, observers say. To date, journal publishers have mostly responded by feeling obliged to offer OA options for researchers. However, some have said they hope US agencies will also allocate more funding to OA publishing, and others that they are concerned about the sustainability of their companies.

Access without delay

The OSTP guidelines build on US public access guidelines dating back almost two decades. In 2008, the US National Institutes of Health (NIH), a major funder of biomedical research, required scientists who receive their grants to file their studies in a public archive within one year of publication. Seven years later, then-President Barack Obama’s administration extended this requirement to recipients of funds from about 20 other federal agencies. Under this policy, more than eight million scientific publications have become free to read and together they are viewed by three million people every day.

The latest White House policy removes the one-year grace period. It was developed last year with input from multiple federal agencies, according to the White House, which says the policy will bolster innovation and transparency by ensuring everyone has access to the results of taxpayer-funded research. It has been difficult to get the entire US federal government on board because of the sheer number of agencies and the variety of research they fund, from basic and applied science to the humanities. “Now we’re going to be wall-to-wall open access,” says Suber.

Those who follow OA trends are waiting to see how US policies will transform the academic publishing industry as a whole. “A lot will depend on how publishers respond,” said Robert Kiley, head of strategy at Coalition S.

In theory, the focus on public repositories that can hold the accepted peer-reviewed versions of articles allows journals to continue collecting subscription fees from institutions and keep definitive articles behind a paywall. In practice, removing the 12-month delay before releasing US searches could change that if publishers fear losing subscription revenue. “This will help accelerate momentum to flip the system to have journals fully open access,” says Lisa Hinchliffe, librarian at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.

It’s also unclear whether US funding agencies or libraries would offer to increase their aid to researchers who need to cover the per-article upfront fees that most journals charge for OA publication. A separate OSTP analysis of the economics of US public access policy, also released Aug. 25, notes that the NIH and the National Science Foundation (NSF) are currently paying for those costs. The OSTP estimates that such publication fees currently amount to approximately 0.5% of the NIH research budget. However, research libraries spend much more: their public access spend ranges from 0.2% to 11% of their budget.

Kiley expects an ecosystem of mixed business models to emerge: for example, some journals will adopt models that avoid charging per-article author fees, such as: B. Bulk contracts with libraries.

Publisher’s reactions

Magazine publishers contacted by Nature say they support the White House’s goals and stand ready to ensure authors can meet the new requirements. A spokesman for Elsevier, the world’s largest academic publisher, said it “actively supports open access to research” and looks forward to working with the OSTP to understand its guidance. “We believe it is too early to say whether these guidelines will impact our journals,” Sudip Parikh, executive director of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) in Washington DC, said in a statement. The AAAS already allows authors to publish accepted manuscripts to institutional repositories immediately after publication, and Parikh said his organization is exploring other ways to provide access to such manuscripts, which will help “ensure equal access to scholarly publications for Secure readers and authors”.

Carrie Webster, Vice President of OA at Springer Nature, who publishes Nature, notes that the company has 580 fully OA journals and 2,000 publications committed to becoming fully OA. However, she adds that the company is hoping for “a commitment from US federal government-funded agencies to support Gold OA,” which refers to financial support for the publication of OA articles in journals. (NatureThe news team of is editorially independent of its publisher.)

The Association of American Publishers (AAP) in Washington DC issued a statement saying the OSTP announcement “makes without formal, meaningful consultation or public contribution during this administration to a decision that will have far-reaching implications, including severe economic impact”. It said it had concerns about the “sustainability and quality of the business”. The AAP was among publishers who had vehemently opposed an alleged 2019 change to US public access policy at the White House.

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