APS News

OSTP Memo Sets Goal of Public Access

A recent memorandum issued by the Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP) sets a goal of making direct results of federally funded science, including peer-reviewed publications and digital data, freely accessible to the public to the greatest extent possible, consistent with law and other objectives, including the continued availability of peer review. OSTP directs each Federal agency with over $100M in annual research expenditures to develop, within six months, a plan for public access, after consultation with stakeholders including researchers, universities, libraries, publishers, and representatives of other potential users. 

The memorandum, issued on February 22, comes in response to a petition submitted to the White House’s “We The People” website, which received more than 65,000 signatures. The memorandum urges agencies to cooperate on their plans, where appropriate, and directs that funds for implementation should come from within existing agency budgets.

The memorandum has been generally greeted with cautious support from publishers of scientific journals. It specifically mentions the role that publishers play in organizing peer review, and allows agencies to craft policies suited to individual scientific fields and agency missions. In particular the memorandum gives a twelve-month embargo period as a guideline for public access to published papers, but allows stakeholders to petition for different embargo periods.

In a statement on its website, APS similarly highlighted the important role that publishers play in the scientific enterprise.

“The APS supports the principle of making federally supported research available to the public and is in the process of evaluating the potential benefits and impacts of the OSTP directive,” the statement reads. “The APS will work with federal agencies to develop public access policies that best meet the needs of the science community and the American taxpayer.”

As reported in the February APS News, APS has established a high level Task Force to coordinate its policy on open access. APS’s Treasurer/Publisher Joseph Serene said that he and other members of the Task Force appreciate the flexibility provided in the memorandum. He added that they look forward to helping agencies develop plans that meet the OSTP goals while protecting the Society’s high-quality peer-reviewed journals.

“We support open access to the greatest extent possible consistent with the health and stability of our journals,” Serene said. “The basic message of the OSTP memo is entirely consistent with what APS policy has always been.”

“We are very concerned that implementation of the OSTP directives allows high quality scientific publishers to continue providing the essential services such  as peer review, powerful online platforms, and secure archiving,” Serene said. “Peer review plays a crucial role in the advancement of science, and publishers’ contributions carry significant costs.”

After the announcement, a wide range of groups, including publishers, libraries and open-access advocates, often with very different positions, have similarly supported the memorandum. Publishers have opposed many past open-access efforts because of the potential loss of revenue from libraries canceling journal subscriptions once their content is free.

The Scholarly Publishing and Academic Resources Coalition (SPARC), which has been pushing for the adoption of broader open access policies, hailed the announcement, calling it “a watershed moment,” and adding that the directive “will accelerate scientific discovery, improve education, and empower entrepreneurs to translate research into commercial ventures and jobs.” 

The Association of American Publishers, which has in the past been sharply critical of legislation and proposals mandating open access, also supports the OSTP’s directive.

“We’ve taken a fairly optimistic and forward-looking view of it,” said Allan Adler, the vice president for legal and government affairs at AAP. “Of course, there is a lot that depends on how it’s read and implemented by individual agencies.”

Major commercial publishers Elsevier and Springer have similarly issued statements saying they are “encouraged” by the OSTP memorandum and that it was “a very reasonable place to start.”

The reason that so many groups with opposing views have been supportive of the directive may be that so far it is only a framework. The memo sets up a goal that 12 months after research using federal funds is published, it’s made available to anyone for free, but it does not specifically say how or in what form. Publishers have said that they prefer working with the agencies to come up with a policy, rather than having a universal system for all sciences legislated by Congress.

“We’ve always had opposition to this idea of government mandates,” Adler said. “This is more flexible in the sense that it does propose a 12 month embargo period, but as a guideline.”

One of the biggest questions is whether the NSF and other science agencies would set up their own centralized databases to store research papers, akin to what the National Institutes of Health did in 2008, when it imposed a requirement that all research done with NIH funding would have to be made available in its open access database PubMed Central within 12 months of publication, building on a voluntary system in place since 2004.

The mandate was controversial when first announced.

“I have been totally opposed to PubMed Central since its inception,” said Martin Frank, Executive Director of the American Physiological Society. He estimated that since 2008, his society has seen about a 15 percent reduction in downloads and a reduction of about 2 percent in subscriptions. Because of the economic downturn, however, it is difficult to ascribe that solely to PubMed Central.

Frank added that because of the reduced traffic to their websites, they’ve lost some ad revenue. Physical Review does not host advertising on its website, but Serene said that he would prefer to see the agencies set up a system that links to publisher websites, rather than hosting the papers themselves.

“What we would least like to see happen is the agencies run large archives,” Serene said. “It’s not easy or inexpensive to build repositories that work well…you may get archives that are not as good as they could be, or as good as already exist.”

The memorandum states that repositories could be run by either the federal government or “scholarly and professional associations, publishers and libraries.”

APS has a long history of open access initiatives, including allowing unrestricted posting of preprints and author’s final versions of published papers. It publishes three open-access journals: Physical Review X, Physical Review Special Topics - Accelerators and Beams and Physical Review Special Topics - Physics Education Research. In addition, author-pays open access has been available for all other APS journals since 2006, and APS makes all of its publications and archives freely available to any U.S. public or high-school library.

APS encourages the redistribution of the materials included in this newspaper provided that attribution to the source is noted and the materials are not truncated or changed.

Editor: Alan Chodos
Staff Science Writer: Michael Lucibella