White House expands Open Access

Published in The Hindu on February 28, 2013

At last, papers arising from research work funded by tax-payers’ money and published in subscription journals will become open access in about a year after they are published. The latest decision by the Obama Administration will be applicable to all agencies with over $100 million in annual R&D expenditure. About 14 agencies, including NASA, FDA, NSF will be covered by this mandate.

Was the decision in any way influenced by the government’s role, in whatever way, in the untimely death of Aaron Swartz, the activist who firmly believed in freeing up information that was behind paywalls? “Aaron Swartz fought tirelessly for open access to information and the free diffusion of knowledge, and the principles he worked so hard to advance are embedded in the Directive. But this Directive was a long time in coming,” noted Heather Joseph in an email to this Correspondent. Ms. Joseph has served as the Executive Director of the Scholarly Publishing and Academic Resources Coalition (SPARC) since 2005. She works to increase access to research locked up in journals.

“It is the result of four years of careful deliberation within the Obama Administration, along with extensive White House consultation with stakeholders. The “Open Access” movement has spent the last decade working to make taxpayer-funded scientific research freely accessible and fully reusable in a digital environment. We believe that Aaron would have seen today’s action as the giant step in the right direction that it is,” she noted.

All the agencies are first required to submit a draft plan within six months. And while devising the final plan, each agency is required to use a “transparent process” to solicit views from all stakeholders — the users of research results and civil society groups included. “I think we will see many of the agencies move fairly quickly with the planning process, and could see some policies actually enacted by the end of 2013,” she hopes.

The memo reflects the landmark decision of 2008 by the National Institutes of Health (NIH) to make papers freely available a year after they are published. That the NIH policy has been successful has been amply demonstrated — more than 90,000 manuscripts have been made publicly available each year, and more than 7,00,000 unique users access material from PubMed Central every day.

It is quite surprising that it took more than four years for the government to enact this. For, publishers who in 2008 raised concerns that the NIH model would hamper their business, have never complained since. “In the four years that the policy has been in place, no publisher has presented any data [to corroborate] that they have been harmed by the policy,” Ms. Joseph states. “Agencies could have, and should have, acted without this directive.” Prof. Michael Eisen, the co-founder of Public Library of Sciences (PLoS) too echoes the same message in his post.

A careful reading of the memo brings out the fine print. It clearly shows that instead of moving forward, the belated decision is at best a retrograde move. Aside from making a year’s embargo a norm, the government has given the individual agencies the freedom to make a case for changing the embargo duration — either reduce or extend it.

In a caustic post, Prof. Eisen, underlines that this effectively gives the publishers a handle to further extend the embargo duration. In her mail Ms. Joseph notes: “I think it will be extremely difficult for an agency to make a persuasive case that the public’s interest would be better served by waiting ‘longer’ to release articles.”

The reason why Prof. Eisen thinks the flexibility would only be used to increase the duration is not difficult to understand. The White House memo goes to extraordinary lengths to articulate the “valuable services” rendered by publishers in providing “quality” work. “It is critical that these services continue to be made available,” clearly reveals that the White House will do nothing to undermine the publishers’ interests.

Little wonder then that the publishers have welcomed the announcement without any objections. In fact, they have gone on record to state that the success of the policy depends on how agencies use the flexibility “to avoid negative impacts” by the way information is communicated. That surely foretells what is about to unfold in the final plan of the different agencies in the coming months.