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Distinctions Emerge in U.S. Government Plans for Expanding Access to Research
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Posted On March 17, 2015
Research funded by the U.S. government is finally going to be available for anyone to read and cite, based on plans laid out by the agencies that administer the funding. Recently, several agencies have released plans that are all based on the February 2013 Memorandum for the Heads of Executive Departments and Agencies. That order required the development of new policies to provide expanded access to the research being funded by the U.S. government.

In addition, Congress included public access requirements in the FY 2014 Omnibus for the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services and the U.S. Department of Education. The memo and the legislation impact 24 agencies that spend at least $100 million in research funding annually. Each plan is customized and includes the approaches the agencies will take to address two very different requirements: public access to research publications and public access to the data associated with that research.

Research Publications

Much of the output of research funded by the government today ends up being published in conventional peer-reviewed journals and books. That work is currently available by subscription only and is behind paywalls for anyone who’s not associated with academic and research institutions that continue to subscribe to journals and purchase books. The plans now emerging from across the federal government will establish the conditions by which that research will be available for broad public access within a year of its publication.

The publication requirements largely emulate policies that have been in place since 2005 for researchers receiving funds from the National Institutes of Health (NIH). NIH developed a repository service, PubMed Central (PMC) (based on its PubMed abstracting-and-indexing service), and established standards for electronic submission that could be accomplished by publishers on behalf of their authors. Compliance with NIH policies for submission to PMC was made mandatory for anyone seeking additional funds from the agency. All of these strategies have boosted compliance with the NIH public access policy to about 80% in recent years.

In addition to working with funding organizations on behalf of their authors, publishers have developed services that can assist in identifying government-funded research and delivering the “version of record” if a mandate for access exists. A number of publishers have joined CHORUS (Clearinghouse for the Open Research of the United States), a service developed to manage the identification and access requirements of the U.S. public access mandates. At the same time, publishers are also supporting the development of FundRef, which provides a standard way to report funding sources for published scholarly research. CHORUS is currently addressing the Obama administration’s requirements for publications and is open to including datasets and other research outputs if the research data infrastructure is developed to make data as accessible as publications in the future.

Members of the higher education community have initiated efforts to ensure the preservation, access, and reuse of both publications and research data. The SHared Access Research Ecosystem (SHARE) initiative was formed in 2013 by higher education organizations and the Association of Research Libraries (ARL) as a reaction to the administration’s public access memo. SHARE focuses on the capabilities of research organizations to collect, organize, and disseminate the outputs of their institutions. All of these efforts—by funders, researchers, and publishers—can theoretically contribute to broader access to research and increase the impact of research funded for a public good.

Research Data Access

The challenge to address access to both publications and data is not exclusive to funders—it is also a growing movement in the open access (OA) community. In February 2014, PLOS (Public Library of Science) published a new policy for research submitted to its journals. It provides researchers with instructions on both their data deposition options and information on how to access data used to produce the results of their research.

U.S. public access plans may focus on research data and outputs largely by requiring data-management plans for the research efforts that organizations fund. The National Science Foundation began requiring a data-management plan for proposed research projects back in 2011. This requirement has led many researchers to reach out to librarians for help in understanding issues such as metadata requirements and the capabilities of the institutional repositories within their organizations.

The data-management-planning process not only ensures access to data that supports published research, but it also ensures that research data is documented, deposited, and made available for other researchers. This supports the replication of research as well as the integration of individual efforts with other inputs for future insight and understanding based on the combination and comparison of multiple discrete efforts.

Each agency plan addresses different aspects of the challenge of making research data available. NASA is planning to “explore the development of a research data commons, a federated system of research databases, along with other Departments and Agencies for storage, discoverability, and reuse of data … resulting from federally funded scientific research available for free at the time of publication.” The U.S. Department of Energy plan addresses the provision of digital object identifiers (DOIs) to datasets resulting from its funded research in order to improve the discoverability of and attribution for datasets created and used in the course of federally funded research.

Open vs. Public Access

It is important to distinguish these new requirements from the growing movement across the globe toward OA publishing. The U.S. public access requirements are established only to ensure that federally funded research is “free to read,” while OA publishing ensures that research is both free to read and that licenses are clearly defined. OA uses Creative Commons licenses to authorize actions such as reuse, attribution, aggregation, and data mining. OA publishing makes research available immediately upon publication. Material provided under the government’s new policy can be embargoed for up to a year. After the embargo, while free to read, the research may still be copyrighted and restricted from any type of use not permitted under current copyright law.

Institutions outside the U.S. government are identifying OA as a high priority for the research they fund. The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation established an OA requirement for its researchers as of January 2015. In February 2015, the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights recommended that “universities and public research agencies … adopt policies to promote open access to published research, materials and data … through the adoption of Creative Commons licences [sic].”

Federally funded researchers can choose to publish their works as OA. They can also use federal funds to pay the author processing charges (APCs) that many OA publishers require. This practice will also ensure the availability of research that’s written by federal employees and published in commercial journals. While the work products of federal employees are supposed to be in the public domain, many employees have signed agreements that limit the ability of the government to make that research available as published.

The distinction between open and public access, as well as whether a work is in the public domain, will become increasingly important as more and more research is published that was funded under one of the many different mandates established by funding organizations today. In the U.K., Research Councils UK (RCUK) revised its policy in April 2013 so that it now seems to favor paying APCs to make science available immediately upon publication. The RCUK policy maintains embargoes of up to 2 years for research placed in institutional repositories.


Richard Huffine is a former federal librarian with 15 years of experience managing library services for the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the USGS (U.S. Geological Survey). He is a frequent speaker at library conferences and an engaged leader and active voice for government libraries in both the American Library Association (ALA) and the Special Libraries Association (SLA). 

Email Richard Huffine

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