White House Delivers New Open-Access Policy That Has Activists Cheering

February 22, 2013

The Obama administration announced on Friday a major new policy aimed at increasing public access to federally financed research. The policy, delivered in a memorandum from John P. Holdren, director of the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy, applies to federal agencies that spend more than $100-million a year to support research and development.

In the memo, Mr. Holdren directed those agencies to develop "clear and coordinated policies" to make the results of research they support publicly available within a year of publication. The new policy also requires scientific data from unclassified, federally supported research to be made available to the public "to search, retrieve, and analyze." Affected agencies have six months to decide how to carry out the policy.

The White House's announcement emphasized the practical and economic benefits of sharing research. "Scientific research supported by the federal government catalyzes innovative breakthroughs that drive our economy," Mr. Holdren's memo stated. "The results of that research become the grist for new insights and are assets for progress in areas such as health, energy, the environment, agriculture, and national security."

The memo also nodded to scientific publishers, saying the Obama administration recognizes that publishers provide "valuable services," such as coordinating peer review, "that are essential for ensuring the high quality and integrity of many scholarly publications." The memo called it "critical that these services continue to be made available."

In a statement issued on Friday, the Association of American Publishers praised the new policy, which it said "outlines a reasonable, balanced resolution of issues around public access to research funded by federal agencies."

Tom Allen, the group's president and chief executive officer, said that, "in stark contrast to angry rhetoric and unreasonable legislation offered by some," the Office of Science and Technology Policy had chosen "a fair path that would enhance access for the public" while recognizing "the critical role publishers play" in the process.

Mr. Allen cautioned, however, that the policy's success depended on "how the agencies use their flexibility to avoid negative impacts to the successful system of scholarly communication that advances science, technology, and innovation."

'New Business Models'

It was clear that a number of federal agencies already had preparations under way for how they would observe the new policy. For instance, the National Science Foundation immediately sent out a statement affirming its commitment to the principle of public access, saying it had already established a timetable for consultation and planning. It noted that the "implementation details" were likely to vary by discipline "and that new business models for universities, libraries, publishers, and scholarly and professional societies could emerge."

Friday's announcement capped a lengthy process of consultation with various stakeholders that sought public input on access to federally financed research and data. More than 65,000 people have signed a petition on the White House's We the People Web site calling for free online access to scientific-journal articles based on taxpayer-supported research.

In a separate statement, Mr. Holdren responded directly to the petitioners. "The Obama administration agrees that citizens deserve easy access to the results of research their tax dollars have paid for," he wrote. "Your petition has been important to our discussions of this issue."

In his response to the petition, Mr. Holdren also mentioned publishers and their role. "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," he wrote. "This policy reflects that balance, and it also provides the flexibility to make changes in the future based on experience and evidence."

'A Really Good Day'

Proponents of expanding access to research hailed Friday's developments as a major victory. "We're delighted to see this. I do feel like it's really a landmark in the battle toward open access," Heather Joseph, executive director of the Scholarly Publishing and Academic Resources Coalition, said in an interview. "This is a really good day."

Ms. Joseph's organization, known as Sparc, has been a leader in the growing push for open access. Sparc issued a formal statement praising the new policy as "a major step forward towards open access to scientific research."

The Association of Research Libraries also greeted the news with enthusiasm, calling the just-announced policy "historic."

"This memorandum reflects how 21st-century science is conducted in order to advance discovery while, at the same time, it makes federal investment in research broadly available," Wendy Lougee, the association's president and the university librarian at the University of Minnesota, said in a written statement. "ARL commends the Obama administration for recognizing the importance and value of making the results of federally funded research publicly available."

It was not immediately clear how the new policy would affect the prospects for the proposed Fair Access to Science and Technology Research Act, a bipartisan bill introduced this month in Congress. If enacted, the legislation would require federal agencies with external research budgets of $100-million or more to make the results of federally financed research available to the public within six months of publication.

Ms. Joseph of Sparc said that the bill would codify the core principles laid out in the White House directive, even though the legislation calls for public access within six months of publication rather than a year. She said her group would continue to push for Congress to pass it. "We want this to be the law of the land," she said, "not just the precedent of a single administration."

One of the bill's sponsors, Rep. Mike F. Doyle of Pennsylvania, said in a news release that the policy reflected the legislation's goals and that he would push to have it enacted this year.