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Dialogue Over Public Access to Scholarly Publications Continues in the U.S.
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Posted On May 23, 2013


On May 14-15, 2013, the National Academy of Sciences hosted a public comment meeting concerning public access to federally supported R&D publications. The meeting was sponsored by several federal departments and agencies affected by the Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP) memorandum issued in February 2013, which directs federal agencies sponsoring more than $100 million in annual R&D expenditures to develop plans to support “increased public access to the results of research funded by the Federal Government. This includes any results published in peer-reviewed scholarly publications that are based on research that directly arises from Federal funds.” The meeting was designed to gather members of various stakeholder groups to offer input on issues concerning to the OSTP policy as it relates to publications. A second meeting was held on May 16 to focus on data.

In the February memorandum, OSTP notes that “[e]ach agency shall submit its draft plan to OSTP within six months of publication of this memorandum.” Furthermore, “In devising its final plan, each agency should use a transparent process for soliciting views from stakeholders, including federally funded researchers, universities, libraries, publishers, users of federally funded research results, and civil society groups, and take such views into account.” Through this meeting, stakeholders were invited to offer their input. After a series of introductory addresses, the meeting was turned over to speakers who had requested the opportunity in advance to address participants. Public comment sessions were organized into the following groups:

          Session 1: Private Individuals; Digital Repositories and Organizations

          Session 2: Libraries and Library Organizations; Universities and University Organizations; Researchers and Students

          Session 3: Publishers (Group 1); Walk-In Registrants (if any)

          Session 4: Publishers (Group 2)

Heather Joseph, executive director of SPARC, presented four “elements” that she believes are crucial for public access policies: 1) Full re-use rights: “We need both barrier-free access to and full digital re-use of the full text of digital articles,” 2) Short or (preferably) no embargoes: “Where access is concerned, faster is really better,” 3) Use of the existing repository infrastructure, which supports interoperability: “We strongly encourage agencies to consider leveraging the significant public investment in the highly successful NIH PubMed Central repository infrastructure, as well as the investments made by higher education institutions and their libraries in non-proprietary digital archives,” and 4) Consistency among policies: “31 flavors may be great for ice cream, but it isn’t a practical approach for research access policies.”

Joseph’s statements were echoed by others from within the library community; many focused on the “green” road for open access (OA) via repositories and librarians’ experiences supporting faculty compliance with the existing NIH public access policy. However, one new point that was introduced during the session was from Jesse Lambertson of the Arlington County Public Library who used his time to remind the audience of the importance of public access to research rather than focus on specifics of policy implementation. Lambertson’s key point was that subscription-based access is quite limiting; public libraries are not able to provide access to much of the body of scholarly literature.

Statements made on behalf of publishers were less consistent. Alicia Wise, director of universal access for Elsevier, notes the Elsevier position in a blog post: The publishing giant is “encouraged by the OSTP memo,” specifically due to its interpretation that the OSTP memo “promotes gold open access funded through publishing charges and flexible embargo periods for green open access.”

Wise also brings up the value-added work that publishers offer. In an email exchange after the meeting, Wise reiterates that, “the Elsevier family took considerable financial and personal risks to publish Galileo’s works at a time [when] they were banned by the inquisition and he himself was under house arrest. Defending author’s freedom of expression is one service publishers provide. We also connect authors to their audience, and now do this in high-tech ways through text mining and by interlinking articles with underlying datasets for example.”

While Wise and many of the other representatives from publishers opened by acknowledging their support for the OSTP memo, their statements generally focused on pushing for embargo periods of 24 months—longer than suggested in the OSTP memo—and on the details of gold OA. As Wise explains via email:

Green open access is not a business model and therefore has no revenue stream associated with it. Author self-archiving is only sustainable if the costs of publication are covered by a supporting business model. If the business model is gold open access, with funding in place for the costs of publication, then self-archiving can happen immediately and be sustainable. If the aim is to graft green open access on to the existing reader-pays subscription business model, then this requires time to work—and sustainable embargo periods are essential if green open access is not to undermine the journals in which academics choose to publish.

John Baillieul from the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers and Phillip DiVietro from the American Society of Mechanical Engineers offered statements in a similar vein. Baillieul pushed for embargoes of at least 24 months; DiVietro pushed for raw data and reports to be made publicly available but not peer-reviewed articles.

On the other hand, the Modern Language Association (MLA) was the lone publisher to offer full support for a new model for scholarly communication. Kathleen Fitzpatrick, director of scholarly communication at MLA, spoke about the tensions facing scholarly publishers between generating revenue and pushing for free OA to publications:

There is still reason for some benefits of membership in a scholarly society to be exclusive to members if we rethink the role of scholarly society in the digital age. The shifts I have described require us to consider the possibility that the locus of a society’s value in the process of knowledge creation may be moving from providing closed access to certain research products to instead facilitating the broadest possible distribution of the work done by its members. This is a profound change, and not just for societies but for their members: we may in coming years operate under a model in which, rather than joining in order to receive the society’s journal, one instead joins a society in order to get one’s own work out to the world, surrounded by and associated with the other work done by experts in the field.

Rebecca Kennison, director of the Center for Digital Research and Scholarship at Columbia University, spoke during the library session of the meeting and shared some thoughts afterward via email. When asked about key takeaways, Kennison notes:

The federal government will push ever more for openness, whether open access to publications or open data. The NIH policy was made law under Bush. The White House directive (and Executive Order on open data) was issued under Obama. Open access to taxpayer-funded research outputs is a bipartisan issue on which there is uniform consensus. These requirements are not going away. That said, I think most agencies understand that the compliance burden on universities is already enormous and that whatever they do, they cannot add to that burden. I’m hoping the agencies are getting the message that any requirements they impose need to be easy to implement, easy to track, easy to report.

The conversation surrounding OA and public access today is vastly different from 5 years ago when the NIH policy was passed, according to Kennison. The conversation in general has shifted from whether OA is a good thing to how to best implement it:

I think what was encouraging, although not necessary a surprise, is that publishers understand that OA mandates are here to stay. They might quibble about embargoes, might insist on their right to demand copyright, might insist that links to their own Web sites, rather than deposit into a central federal repository (such as PMC), is the way to go, but at the end of the day, to a person, they stood up and said they supported making research available—after some time, under some restraints. That was absolutely not the conversation any of us were having five years ago, when the NIH policy was put into place.


Abby Clobridge is the managing director of Clobridge Consulting, a boutique firm specializing in knowledge management, information management, and open access. Abby has worked with a wide range of organizations throughout the world, including various United Nations agencies; colleges and research universities; nonprofit, intergovernmental, and multistakeholder organizations; the news media; and private sector companies. She can be found on Twitter @aclobridge.

Email Abby Clobridge

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