The recent memo from the Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP) outlines a reasonable policy and approach to providing public access to final, peer-reviewed, edited, and published papers based on federally-funded research. How this policy is interpreted, however, requires care, as misinterpreting it could lead to unforeseen consequences or unnecessary expenses.
An editorial published yesterday in the New York Times makes this clear. There are two major points the editorial mishandles:
- We paid for the research, so let’s see it. This is the headline of the editorial. If this were the total argument, then the OSTP memo would be unnecessary — as others have pointed out, making the research reports emanating from federal funding available to the public is currently within the remit of every federal agency, and many do it. This is not the same as making peer-reviewed, edited, and published final manuscripts based on federal research free to the public. The OSTP memo acknowledges that publishers have 12 months (and there is room for this to be modified) in which to recoup their costs and generate their margins. This is partly what makes this a good policy. It strikes a balance. The Times headline is unnecessarily strident and gives off the wrong impression of what’s really being discussed.
- Like the NIH, other agencies should create central repositories for papers. This is not recommended within the OSTP memo and is another misstep by the editorialists. I would aver that PubMed Central is expensive, unnecessary, and competitive with publishers. In my opinion, it is a dinosaur from 1998 which is protected by federal law. But even if another superfluous repository were a twinkle in someone’s eys, the OSTP memo’s construction makes it unlikely. In fact, one of its strengths is that is assumes a more modern and Internet-like possibility — that agencies can provide signposts to compliant publishers’ sites, reducing expenses for government agencies and providing publishers with traffic, thereby aligning their interests. The OSTP agencies will look modern and save money, while the NIH will look increasingly out of step by having an expensive, redundant, and competitive repository.
There are other problems and untested assumptions trumpeted in the Times editorial, but these were also untested assumptions in the OSTP memo, the biggest of which is that public access to scientific papers increases the pace of innovation. This hasn’t been proven. At a recent conference about open access in the UK, one speaker was quoted as saying, “Lack of evidence of the benefits of OA papers is NOT a reason not to do it.” These kinds of statements from purported science-lovers are always bewildering, but they’re not uncommon. Additionally, the House of Lords in the UK recently upbraided the RCUK for potentially acting unilaterally and not conducting a full cost:benefit analysis.
There is also the quote in the editorial from John Holdren, the President’s science advisor, that “[Americans] deserve easy access to the results of research their tax dollars have paid for.” Such nationalistic chords are seeping into discussions more naturally as public access initiatives move forward, showing how parochial interests about taxation are rubbing up against public access idealism. There is a danger lurking here — that is, if taxpayer-funded research is tied to national interests like innovation and economic competitiveness, why wouldn’t a government protect this same research from non-citizens using the same logic? After all, wouldn’t this also benefit taxpayers?
The whiff of national differences appears elsewhere. There are signs the UK is beginning to feel a national isolation on some issues, particularly its Gold OA and CC-BY stances. Embargo periods are showing their political appeal here. After all, making published reports free after the subscription markets have essentially paid for them seems to be a more attractive option for policymakers. It lets them slip the knot — they can claim success in both making published research free while simultaneously not adding to the tax burden. They are also able to say they are supporting non-profit publishers, learned societies, or large commercial publishers. It’s a great way to win votes.
The OSTP memo is a reasonable step forward. However, we need to realize what it says, what it does not, and which interpretations are based in reality, which are unproven, which might be landmines, and which may actually be steps backward.