White House Endorses Open Access Research

February 24, 2013

For a few years no, there has been a growing movement in the research and academic world to provide free or low-cost access to research results.  Traditionally, these results have been under the control of the publishers of academic journals, which charge high annual subscription fees; when access to an individual article is available, it commonly costs $30-40 or more.  I’ve written here several times about the growing trend among organizations, including The Royal Society, Princeton University, the World Bank, and the National Academies Press, to make some or all of their content available at no charge on the Web.   Last summer, the Research Councils UK announced a new open-access policy that applies to all research that they fund, wholly or in part, effective April 2013; this was in part the result of a British government policy decision that all publicly-funded research should be made available online, free of charge.

The US government, of course, provides funding for a great deal of research, too, and there have been increasing calls to make the results of that research freely available, including a petition, on the “We the People” section of the White House web site, which attracted 65,704 signatures.  On Friday, the administration released a response from Dr. John Holdren, Assistant to the President for Science and Technology and Director of the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy, which announced a move toward open access:

The Obama Administration agrees that citizens deserve easy access to the results of research their tax dollars have paid for.

Details of the new policy are contained in a memorandum [PDF] to Federal agencies, directing those with R&D budgets of more than $100 million to develop plans under which all research will be made available to the public, free of charge, within 12 months of original publication.  This approach is modeled on the existing Public Access Policy of the National Institutes of Health (NIH).  Individual agencies need not copy the NIH policy exactly; they are allowed, in principle, to make adjustments to fit their particular fields of research.  And there will be the customary exemptions for national security and other sensitive areas.

We should probably expect a certain amount of squabbling over the details of these policies; after all, the journal publishers have a vested economic interest in the status quo.   There have already been some complaints that the announcement does not go far enough toward completely open access, and doubtless there will be more.  As with any new policy, the odds are that the initial implementation will fall short of perfection.  Yet I think that, on the whole, this is a very positive step.  Once open access to even a part of the research results is granted, it will be very difficult to go back.

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