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US government calls time on open-access embargoes

17 Sep 2022

The US government has called for all government-funded research to be made freely available to read immediately after publication. Peter Gwynne reports

cartoon of a woman unlocking a cloud to access files and data
Embargo ban The new mandate will allow US researchers from 2025 to deposit their paper in an open-access repository immediately after publication. (Courtesy: iStock/sorbetto)

The US has announced a new open-access policy that would make the results of research supported by the government available to the public at no cost and with no embargo period. Alondra Nelson, acting head of the Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP), has called on federal research bodies to implement the new policy by the end of 2025. 

Researchers in America who publish papers based on US federal funds currently have two options. They can either make an article open access on publication by paying an article-processing charge to the publisher. Or they can publish it in a subscription-based journal but then put the accepted paper in a publicly available repository following a one-year embargo. 

The new mandate effectively ends the 12-month embargo period, allowing researchers, from 2025, to put their paper in an open repository as soon as it is published in a journal. “The American people fund tens of billions of dollars of cutting-edge research annually,” says Nelson, who is an anthropologist by training. “There should be no delay or barrier between the American public and the returns on their investments in research.”

Wide welcome

The move has been welcomed by the Scholarly Publishing and Academic Resources Coalition (SPARC), which has advocated greater openness of research results for more than two decades. “[W]e express our heartfelt thanks to the Biden Administration and OSTP…for enabling this giant step towards realizing our collective goal of ensuring that sharing knowledge is a human right – for everyone,” says SPARC executive director Helen Joseph.

Learned societies that publish their own journals and those of partner organizations have also welcomed the OSTP’s announcement, although they warn that open access should not be implemented too aggressively. “Through partnership and co-ordination, we can develop effective implementation plans that lead to rapid progress in open access and open data,” the American Institute of Physics (AIP) noted in a statement requested by Physics World. “We look forward to working collaboratively with these agencies and stakeholders across the scholarly publishing ecosystem to establish solutions that benefit the research communities we serve.” 

IOP Publishing, which publishes Physics World, takes a similar view. Noting its determination “to make universal access to research a reality”, an IOP Publishing statement adds that the “transition needs to be carefully managed to ensure access to publishing for researchers and to ensure there is sufficient funding in the system to support publishers and others for the contribution they make to ensuring quality and integrity in research and in communication”.

Yet the wider commercial publishing industry, which has traditionally relied on journal subscriptions, takes a different view. “How will publishers, especially small publishers, sustain the accuracy, quality and output that the public interest requires?” says Shelley Husband, senior vice president for government affairs at the Association of American Publishers. She feels the guidance “will have sweeping ramifications, including serious economic impact” and criticizes it for coming “without formal, meaningful consultation or public input”.

Individual commercial publishers have taken a more guarded stance. In a statement to Physics World, the Dutch-based publisher Elsevier says it will “look forward to working with the research community and OSTP to understand its guidance in more detail”. Elsevier adds that “nearly all” of its 2700 journals enable open access, including 600 that are “fully open-access journals”. 

Global barriers

Despite the drive to greater openness, however, there are still significant barriers to open access worldwide. These were confirmed by a global study of more than 3000 researchers in physical science – released in August by the AIP, the American Physical Society, IOP Publishing and Optica Group Publishing. It found that while some 53% of respondents want to publish open access, some 62% say that a lack of money from funding agencies prevents them from doing so.

About 80% of respondents in Latin America and South Asia reported that a lack of grants is preventing them from publishing their papers in open-access form. Meanwhile, 61% of respondents from Europe, which has spearheaded many developments in open access in recent decades, regards obtaining grants as the most significant barrier to such publishing.

“Strategies that limit researchers to only publish their results in fully open-access journals, or that undermine the viability of high-quality hybrid journals through zero embargo policies, could result in physics researchers no longer having an adequate range of options or freedom of choice in where they publish their work,” the study concludes.

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