Rumors have been circulating in recent weeks of an impending US Executive Order focusing on public access to federally funded research and open data. It appears that there is indeed a document making the rounds of Federal Funding Agencies for comment. The order has apparently been in the works for a while now, emanating from the US Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP), which has been tight-lipped about the the existence of the order. There seems to be little concern over the fate of non-profit and society publishers. Among the likely recommendations appears to be that of a zero embargo on published journal articles. Essentially, this means that articles from researchers who are federally funded will be freely available immediately following publication.
If you add this to the Plan S initiative from Europe, you may be forgiven for predicting the end of academic publishing as we know it. At the very least you may imagine the forthcoming discussions that will ensue, with hackles raised on all sides and little empathy shown for differing viewpoints.
Here I want to explore the environment. It may be useful to provide insight into what a zero embargo could do to the publishing landscape, as well as how researchers may respond. First though I thought it may be useful to understand exactly how an Executive Order works here in the US, especially for those who may be reading in other parts of the world.
Perhaps the first thing to understand is the nature of an Executive Order. There are three branches of government in the U.S. that supposedly balance power so that no one branch can rule the roost in isolation. The Legislative Branch of government makes the laws – this is Congress, including the Senate and the House of Representatives. The Executive Branch enforces the laws, and the Judicial Branch, interprets the laws. The Executive Branch concentrates power in the President of the United States, who also happens to be Commander-in-Chief of the armed forces. The notion is that independent agencies of this branch then enforce laws enacted by Congress. As head of the Executive Branch, The President – yes, take a deep breath and say the words “Donald Trump” — appoints heads for the many federal agencies.
In addition, specific offices may be set up as a part of the executive branch, and an example of this is the Office of Science and Technology Policy, currently headed by Kelvin Droegemeier, a political appointee. This office has a broad mandate to advise the President on the scientific, engineering and technical aspects of the economy, national security, health, foreign relations, the environment, and many other areas. Heads of Federal Funding Agencies, such as the National Sceince Foundation (NSF) are appointed by the President. The President can manage the Executive Branch through Executive Orders, which essentially orders Federal Agencies to abide by rules set out by the President. We are seeing a significant number of Executive orders flowing from our current President on a wide range of issues. There is arguably a blurring of lines between branches of Government, and some would say, abuse of the power of the Executive Branch with elements of democracy at risk. An Executive Order is not open for public discourse. The details of such an order are often not revealed until it is announced for implementation. In this case, Federal Funding Agencies have been asked to comment, though their concerns may or may not be considered. OSTP is central to the development of such an order.
Let’s assume we now live in the post-apocalyptic world of a zero-embargo policy for federally funded research. What does this mean for the publishing of scholarly articles and their authors?
On the one-hand, it seems natural that if an institutional subscriber is faced with freely available content, they may quite justifiably decline to pay a subscription fee. Whether or not this occurs will be highly discipline dependent. In a field such as immunology, a majority of a journal’s articles may be fully, or partially funded by federal monies. In mathematics, the field in which I work, this is likely to account for roughly 25% of articles published. Part of the problem is that journals have to be financially supported to thrive. Whether it be subscriptions, article processing charges (APCs), donor funding for Diamond access etc., one way or another the costs of publishing a journal and its articles need to be borne. If a journal is effectively made freely available, the journal will potentially no longer be able to exist. One can argue that in enacting an ideal of openness, the medium of expression will wither.
One area that I sense policy makers do not grasp well is that different fields have widely varying cultures around publishing academic articles. In the biomedical science, competition to be first is fierce. Content usage may well be high initially, but will likely fade as new research is published. The article is likely a report on an experiment, rather than the article being integral to the research itself. In mathematics, at the other extreme, the article itself is the research. The elegance of a proof, the way an idea is expressed etc., matters. In math, as for many humanities disciplines, there may not be heavy usage, but usage will continue for generations. The mathematics remains correct, relevant, and useful.
Another issue that will be faced by all stakeholders, be they researchers, institutions, funders or publishers is the not so “civil” war between Gold and Green open access (OA). US funding agencies are currently agnostic to Green and Gold OA, with a 12-month embargo being the minimum requirement for Green. If there is a zero embargo, Green essentially dissolves away. Publishers of all stripes will be forced to look for publishing revenues in other ways, hiking up Gold APCs, or charging for Green. Journals may close up shop. There is grant money in the research ecosystem. The balance of access to these monies is the problem. In the end the burden will fall on a researcher’s budget. Those who have will survive, and those who do not may lose their jobs. What does this say about the very differing routes that Europe and the USA are taking? The rest of the world is likely looking at this rather ornery discussion with a bemused smirk.
Here in the US, it does seem hard to imagine that President Trump has a deep understanding of public access mandates. The real question here is why the OSTP is driving policy in this way? Are those drivers, engaging with researchers themselves? Researchers are already confused. Researchers are not equipped to disentangle such complexity – nor should they be.