Editor’s Note: Today’s post is by Tom Ciavarella. Tom is the head of Public Affairs and Advocacy in North America for Frontiers and runs Smarter Learning, a consultancy that works with startups and STM publishers.
So, you’ve decided to run for public office. You’re smart and charismatic. You possess a great work ethic. You have prominent donors and supporters in your corner and no skeletons in your closet.
But your opponent already holds the job you want. Your opponent is the incumbent, and the one already in the seat almost always has the advantage.
In scholarly publishing, the incumbents are subscription-based publishers. And the benefits of incumbency are clear. The worldwide scientific publishing market for journals is around US$ 27 billion. The five largest paywall publishing houses (Elsevier, Wiley, Springer Nature, Taylor & Francis, and SAGE) have captured more than half of it.
That striking commercial success raises questions of consumer benefit, social value, and public sector intervention. Are we seeing enough competition to spur the innovation we need, at the pace required, to make rigorous science accessible to all? Almost certainly not. The stakes are high enough to justify public policy intervention.
Given that, the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy’s (OSTP) August 2022 guidance was one such intervention that is entirely justified. The goal of making federally funded research freely available without delay (aka the Nelson Memo), is bold. At Frontiers we expressed our support for it at the time – and the White House amplified our support alongside others’.
It was also clear the Biden Administration placed fairness at the heart of the Memo. Individual Americans, via taxes, pay for billions of dollars of scientific research every year. But two-thirds of its results are locked behind publishing paywalls. Science for the few who can access it – as opposed to the many who pay for it – is insufficient as scientific or governmental policy.
But now the Nelson Memo is contested. Alongside many other initiatives from this Administration, support for it is being swept up by a febrile political setting on Capitol Hill. The shape and pace of the Memo’s delivery won’t be clear for some time. And the definition of success still appears to be up for grabs.
Which leads me back to the incumbents of the scholarly publishing world. Will they stand up for the Memo and fight for its funding? It is vital they do. Early signs of the Memo’s neglect – and perhaps forsaking – have been on display in recent weeks. Let me pick three examples.
First, on June 30, the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) released an updated public access plan and a request for comment. That’s no surprise on its own; the NIH, NASA, and other federal agencies have issued similar calls to align themselves with the Nelson Memo.
But NIST’s plan is the first released to posit that the existing 12-month embargo – which the Nelson Memo explicitly sets aside – might still be allowed for some federally funded research articles. (This is noted in line 114 of the NIST RFI.) Such deviations from the Memo’s principles risk undermining the goal of widespread public access.
Then, on July 14, the Appropriations Committee of the US House of Representatives released the Fiscal Year 2024 bill for the Commerce, Justice, Science, and Related Agencies Subcommittee. Section 552 of the bill, if passed into law, would effectively freeze the Nelson Memo for a year (specifically, through the fiscal year ending Sept 30, 2024):
SEC. 552. None of the funds made available by this or any other Act may be used to implement, administer, apply, enforce, or carry out the Office of Science and Technology Policy’s August 25, 2022, Memorandum to Executive Departments and Agencies entitled, ‘‘Ensuring Free, Immediate, and Equitable Access to Federally Funded Research.’’
This development is concerning and would hold back vital progress if enacted.
And finally, this month, the president of research at a one of the world’s largest publishers asserted in an editorial that transformative agreements from legacy publishers are the key to opening access to scientific knowledge. Transformative agreements are a market mechanism, a solution to a financial problem rather than the scientific and technical ones the Nelson Memo was written to address.
To restate the question: will influential incumbents now fight for the Nelson Memo and its funding? Or will they see a chance to put it on ice or water it down, as they may have when the principles of Plan S in the UK and Europe were successfully (if controversially) implemented?
Because of course, the Nelson Memo is now politically charged. Congress has held no public hearings on the OSTP guidelines. No publisher has gone on record opposing the principles underpinning the Nelson Memo. And representatives of both STM and AAP have said that their organizations did not advocate for the language in the House Appropriations bill. But Republicans and Democrats will, among other things, point to the Memo’s funding or defunding as badges of honor.
So, what happens next?
Regarding the House Appropriations bill, it’s worth noting that Section 552 has passed only the House subcommittee so far. For it to become law, the bill would need to clear the full Appropriations Committee and the House floor. Then the Democratic-controlled Senate would have to accept it and President Biden sign it into law. None of this is likely, but the mere presence of Section 552 points to a long fight ahead.
And as for the incongruous NIST position, the agency is likely to receive a torrent of comments from publishers refuting NIST’s interpretation of the Nelson Memo and seeking additional justification for their policy. (Comments on the NIST RFI are due no later than Aug 14.)
As a path to the Nelson Memo’s implementation becomes clearer, and delivery models emerge, decisionmakers should build awareness of, and trust in, the public policy process. And publishers of all stripes should take greater responsibility by advocating for positive change. We need to challenge a fuller range of views in the competition for ideas.
At Frontiers, we have consistently advocated the benefits of greater competition – a wider range of fully open access publishing models – to release our collective scientific knowledge from paywalls. We welcome all such open access models, whether they are publicly or privately funded and financed.
And we will continue to speak openly and publicly on behalf of an established ecosystem of publishers, societies, and scholarly organizations – who together are investing significantly in technology and editorially to see that Open Science remains efficient, trustworthy, and beneficial to all. That’s our social purpose as a business.
A fuller, more public discussion of the Nelson Memo would deepen and broaden perceptions of scientific research and the decisions that flow from it. All publishers – incumbent and new – should contribute to that discussion.
If we believe that facing down global existential threats rests heavily on full and immediate access to the latest scientific knowledge; and if we believe that fully Open Science can help meet the public’s appetite for accountability and trust – then it is vital we defend competition in a diverse publishing landscape.