No celebrations here: why the White House public access policy is bad for open access

I am taking a lot of flak from my friends in the open access community about my sour response to the White House’s statement on public access to papers arising from federally-funded scientific research.

While virtually everyone in the open access movement is calling for “celebration” of this “landmark” event, I see a huge missed opportunity that will ultimately be viewed as a major setback for open access. Since I seem to be the only person with this point of view, I feel I should explain why.

The statement was nominally triggered by a petition posted on the White House’s “We the People” page last May calling for greater access to the results of federally funded research, pointing to the successful NIH public access policy as a model for other agencies.

Under this new White House directive, all federal agencies with R&D budgets in excess of $100,000,000 will have to develop their own public access policies that will “ensure the public can read, download, and analyze in digital form” published works arising from federally-funded research within 12 months of publication.

There is no doubt this is a good thing. Once the new policies are implemented everyone will have access to the full range outputs of federally funded research. That is better than what is available today. So why aren’t I dancing in the streets?

When the NIH announced its public access policy in 2008, this truly was a landmark event. The biggest funder of non-classified scientific research in the world (The NIH research budget is around $30b/year) was acting to ensure public access to the entire body of its funded works. The policy was imperfect – it allowed a 12 months embargo, and had no provisions for reuse of the works. But this was big news – the instantiation of a new right – the right of the public to access the results of taxpayer funded research.

And the NIH policy has been very successful. The research community has accepted the mandate with nary a hitch - over 80% of NIH funded works end up in PubMed Central, the NIH’s open archive of scientific journal articles – and the database is heavily accessed by both researchers and the public.

It should have been a complete no brainer for other federal agencies to follow the NIH’s pioneering actions. But sadly, none did. And given the remarkable progress in open access that has happened in the intervening five years, for the White House to merely extend the NIH policy to other agencies is lame, retrograde action.

And it’s even worse than that. When the NIH policy was announced, people like me who believe that publicly funded works should be immediately freely available looked at the 12 month embargo period as a kind of opening bid – a concession to publishers that was necessary to get the policy off the ground, but which would ultimately disappear.

But now the White House has taken the 12 months embargo period and reified it.Year long delays are no longer an experiment by one agency. They are, in effect, the law of the land.

And why, after so clearly articulating the importance of public access in the begininning of their policy announcement, did the White House ultimately sell out the public? Here is what they say:

The Administration also recognizes that publishers provide valuable services, including the coordination of peer review, that are essential for ensuring the high quality and integrity of many scholarly publications. It is critical that these services continue to be made available.

The administration fell hook line and sinker for the ridiculous argument put forth by publishers that the only way for researchers and the public to get the servies they provide is to give them monopoly control over the articles for a year – the year when they are of greatest potential use.

Think about how absurd this is. Publishers, whose role should be to disseminate information as widely as possible, are now the only reason why the public will continue to not have access to research results their tax dollars paid for.

The White House chose this path even though there is now ample evidence that this concession is unnecessary. PLoS, BioMed Central and many other open access publishers have proven that publishers can create healthy businesses that provide all the services people value without ever restricting access to the papers they publish.

That the White House chose to ignore the rise of open access publishing and allow 12 month embargoes to persist shows that they care more about industries with well payed lobbyists than they do about the public good. And if you have any doubt that the publishers got what they wanted out of this policy, you only have to read the response of the Association of American Publishers – an industry group that has long opposed any moves towards public access and has backed repeated efforts to repeal the NIH policy:

The Association of American Publishers supports the Policy on Access to Research Outputs, released today by the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP), which outlines a reasonable, balanced resolution of issues around public access to research funded by federal agencies.

Clearly the publishers got what they wanted out of the White House. And do you really think it’s going to stop there? They have established their ability to corrupt policy making, and will continue to exploit it. I predict that as these policies are implemented in different agencies, that they will be heavily tilted towards what the publishers want. There will be no central archives – just links out to publishers websites. And there will be pressure to increase – not decrease – embargo periods. The publishers are already laying the groundwork for this in their statement:

The key to the success of the policy, however, depends on how the agencies use their flexibility to avoid negative impacts to the successful system of scholarly communication that advances science, technology and innovation.

It’s sad. Had the White House actually looked at the landscape of scientific publishing with an eye towards maximizing public access, they would have realized that embargoes  are completely unnecessary. They could easily have come out with a policy that said:

From this point onward, the federal government will operate with a simple principle. Whenever the taxpayers of the United States sponsor scientific research, the results of this research will be immediately available to everyone.

Instead, once again, our government let us down, allowing a dying, useless industry to dictate policy that serves to line their pockets at the expense of the public good. And so I ask my friends in the open access movement, and everyone who cares about ensuring that the scientific research is as accessible and useful as it can be, is this really something you want to be celebrating?

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  1. Jonathan
    Posted February 24, 2013 at 1:25 pm | Permalink

    This new policy has three goals, I think. On the one hand, to institutionalize another class of valueless rentiers, or, as the Administration typically euphemizes, “public-private partnership”. On the other hand, to deflect attention from and impact on the Adminstration’s grabs at discretionary power, here under the pretext of fighting cybercrime, and to provide a low-impact, quietly disposable, facially socialist check-list item for dutiful partisans to use in running interference against the left wing of the party. Sadly, all of these are SOP for the Administration.

    Happily, the sponsors of FASTR and Aaron’s Law don’t seem to be calling it a day yet. Sen. Wyden, in particular, commended the Administration for “joining the fight”, which impresses me as damning their faint gesture with about the faintest praise a long-standing party member can lavish upon their own sitting President.

  2. Posted February 24, 2013 at 3:16 pm | Permalink

    I agree with you, this White House OSTP memo makes many concessions to the publishing “industry” that appear to stem more from lobbying and commercial interests than from evidence or public interest. It shouldn’t be considered an outlier or radical position to propose immediate access to all federally-funded research results, when such public-knowledge policies are so well established in U.S. tradition & law, and so amply proven viable by PLOS, PubMedCentral, etc.

    In this regard it’s similar to what’s gone on recently in the UK, with government Open Access policy seemingly steered heavily towards a controversial Gold OA mandate that’s suspiciously favorable to incumbent subscription publishers.

    However, I would also question the particularity of framing the issue as “public access to papers arising from federally-funded scientific research,” as is done by the OSTP memo, the related recent FASTR bill in Congress, and by your blog post and most related discussion.

    I discussed this recently in a reply to Peter Suber, “Dreaming of open knowledge, settling for access to publicly funded science” (, with these key points:

    1) the concrete implementation terms of the new OSTP policy and FASTR bill are not specific to “scientific research,” but appear to cover most types of research results funded by any Federal agency above a certain funding level. This apparently would cover large areas of work outside of science proper.

    2) More generally, the “access to your publicly funded scientific research” argument is, while perhaps politically expedient and effective in some contexts, significantly different from fundamental Open Access principles and rationales, as stated for example in the Budapest or Berlin declarations. These focus on the ethical and scholarly case for, and new technological possibility of, open online dissemination — regardless of how funded, or what type of scholarship.

    I co-founded the humanities Open Access project Open Library of Humanities, in part to help counter the re-enclosure of OA by more parochial rationales and disciplinary interests, and to re-articulate earlier principles of open scholarship, of all types and in all fields. Science-based OA advocacy tends to persistently reframe these issues around science’s particular concerns, and current scholarly practices, marginalizing other fields and other forms of scholarship. I think taking a larger view is better not only for other fields, but for science itself in the long run.

    Tim McCormick
    @tmccormick / / Palo Alto, CA, USA

  3. allison l. stelling
    Posted February 24, 2013 at 3:34 pm | Permalink

    question: are all of PLOS’s production costs covered by the fees you folks charge the authors/universities (last i checked it was $1,300)? i get that charging 30 bucks for access to a single article is a bit over the top now that we have the internet; but i’d be willing shell out a buck or two to for access to an article– esp. for non-medical stuff. (not making life-saving medical research freely available immediately after thorough peer review is just … unethical, in my view.)

  4. DrugMonkey
    Posted February 25, 2013 at 9:21 am | Permalink

    As a reminder, many journals maintain pre-publication queues where a paper is available in manuscript, or even final form, online but have not been formally “published” in a print issue yet. Six months lag is common and I’ve seen some journals up at 13 months.

    Obviously, tagging the OA clock to the print date, instead of the available-online date extends the interval of closed access to the work.

    Journals/publishers can manipulate their waiting list to extend their monopoly if they choose.

  5. Posted February 25, 2013 at 11:02 am | Permalink

    There is more work to be done – this is not the end point, I think we all agree on that, and it’s awesome that FASTR was introduced even before this. One way to look at this is now we’re in a very different ballpark. This isn’t the end goal, but it is a different baseline. An embargo of no more than a year is a far cry from the push to perpetual copyright – and the AAP’s warm embrace of the White House initiative is a dramatic reversal of their approach to previous OA policy initiatives. Remember PRISM? That was the brainchild of an AAP committee.

  6. Posted February 25, 2013 at 6:58 pm | Permalink

    Agree. It’s a lame response. “If I were president…” Well, apparently that’s not going to work.

    How about: “If I were on the grant committee…” or “If I were the program manager…”

    All the “real” scientists should have a meeting and decide how THEY will evaluate proposals. Publications are pay-walled? Data are closed? Sorry you get dinged.

    This seems like a fantasy, but when you get down to it, science is still funded by an “old boys/girls club”. I think 90% of the people in that club don’t understand the importance of open science. 5% of them do and are frustrated at lack of progress. The other 5% understand the system and are still feeding off it. That means that 95% of scientists (and thus 95% of grant reviewers, tenure committee members, etc.) are really on our side. We just need to get them to care. Obama would have helped but there are other ways. The 90% will follow, once it becomes cool.

  7. Posted February 26, 2013 at 3:49 am | Permalink

    All the “real” scientists should have a meeting and decide how THEY will evaluate proposals. Publications are pay-walled? Data are closed? Sorry you get dinged.

    Yes. This.

  8. Posted February 26, 2013 at 1:15 pm | Permalink

    This only slightly shifts the power balance away from the for-profit publishers. It’s an incremental move in the right direction, the way that this administration works. It’s a battle in a long war.

  9. Posted April 1, 2013 at 2:01 am | Permalink

    I was going to leave a comment here about the tension between open access and academic freedom, which i recently explored in a blog post (4 ways open access enhances academic freedom) at
    But instead, as a fellow blogger, I just want to express my awe for the “share” numbers you get. How do you do that?!

  10. Posted March 26, 2014 at 12:56 am | Permalink

    You don’t must publish with a traditional publisher either. While worrying for every one of the work which is piled up, paper writing activity adds up towards the anxiety because this particular process requires scrupulous eye for details.

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