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U.S. Takes Huge Step Forward in Opening Access to Publicly Funded Research
Posted On February 25, 2013
During a flurry of announcements over the past 2 weeks, the world has watched as two major developments were launched from the U.S. federal government that will open access to articles produced as a result of grant funding from key U.S. agencies. On Feb. 14, 2013, exactly 11 years after the Budapest Open Access Initiative (BOAI) was first signed, representatives from Congress introduced the “Fair Access to Science and Technology Research” (FASTR) Act, proposed legislation which, if passed, would require public access to publicly funded research from major funding agencies including: Department of Agriculture, Department of Commerce, Department of Defense, Department of Education, Department of Energy, Department of Health and Human Services, Department of Homeland Security, Department of Transportation, Environmental Protection Agency, National Aeronautics and Space Administration, and the National Science Foundation. FASTR was introduced as identical bills in both houses of Congress—in the House of Representatives as H.R. 708 by Mike Doyle (D-Pa.), Zoe Lofgren (D-Calif.), and Kevin Yoder (R-Kansas) and in the Senate as S. 350 by John Cornyn (R-Texas) and Ron Wyden (D-Ore.). While the introduced legislation for FASTR would present a big step forward for open access (OA) if passed, it is still a long way from becoming a signed bill. Then on Friday, Feb. 22, the White House issued its own directive pushing for OA—a milestone in its own right. FASTR and the White House Directive are similar in focus, but the nuances of their recommendations and requirements include some differences. Both, however, squarely aim to significantly broaden access to peer-reviewed scholarly articles resulting from publicly funded research—access in terms of both cost and re-use rights.

The FASTR Act of 2013

The FASTR Act builds on the existing National Institutes of Health (NIH) Public Access Policy that requires scientists to deposit a copy of the final, peer-reviewed version of all articles tied to NIH-funded research into PubMed Central, a digital repository maintained by the NIH’s National Library of Medicine (NIH/NLM). Scientists are required to deposit their manuscripts upon acceptance of publication, and articles are to be made publicly available through PubMed Central “no later than” 12 months after the official date of publication. The NIH policy has been in effect since 2008.

FASTR follows the model set out by the NIH policy, but it expands it as well. In a nutshell, FASTR requires federal departments and agencies with yearly research expenditures more $100 million to develop and implement public access policies. According to text of the bill, each affected department must develop its own policy that at a minimum requires the following:

1)      Deposit of final, peer-reviewed manuscripts for articles resulting in part or in full from federal funding into a digital repository

2)      Research papers that are deposited into repositories to be available “in formats and under terms that enable productive reuse, including computational analysis by state-of-the-art technologies”

3)      Public access to research within 6 months of publication of each article, cutting the 12-month grace period from the NIH mandate in half

By targeting 11 departments and agencies that collectively provide research funding for tens of billions of dollars, FASTR would dramatically open up access to research. A background briefing for FASTR published by Sen. Ron Wyden notes that the body of literature published as a result of federal funding is tremendous—“approximately 90,000 papers are published annually as [a] result of NIH funding alone.” Furthermore, “Because U.S. taxpayers directly fund this research, they have a right to expect that its distribution and use will be maximized, and that they themselves will have access to it.”

When asked why FASTR is important, Congressman Mike Doyle, one of the three co-sponsors of the House of Representatives bill, explained via email:

 It’s important for a number of reasons. First, we believe that expanding access to more federally funded research results will do much to help disseminate this important information. That, we hope, will promote more rapid progress in further research and encourage innovation and economic growth. Second, we believe that since the American taxpayers have paid for this research, they deserve to have access to it – and they shouldn’t have to pay again to see the results of the research they themselves funded.

FASTR is not the first time that members of Congress have introduced legislation pushing for public access to research—but FASTR is the first time that a proposed Congressional bill pushes for public access to research and includes language regarding re-use. When asked what prompted introduction of FASTR, Doyle responded:

This isn’t a new endeavor. We’ve been working on this issue for several years now. FASTR’s predecessor, the Federal Research Public Access Act, was introduced originally in the 111th Congress and again in the 112th Congress. This year, we made what we think are improvements to the Federal Research Public Access Act. FASTR enhances the language of the Federal Research Public Access Act by asking agencies to explore open licensing as a way to promote even better access to the information contained in articles funded by taxpayer dollars. Scientists want to be able to find and use each others’ research quickly and effectively. FASTR will allow for even more seamless collaboration within the research community.

Cameron Neylon, advocacy director of PLOS, a leading OA journal publisher and advocacy organization, also reiterated the importance of re-use rights in order to further science—rights that are not included in the current NIH policy. In an email, he noted:

FASTR addresses two things, the first is giving patients, entrepreneurs, and innovators, as well as researchers access to read research, so they can use it. The second is making sure they can use it. Twenty years ago the founders of PLOS wanted to be able to use a computer to read all the articles on all the genes they were studying. They were doing a new kind of science and it needed a new kind of reading. Today, the traditional publishers have just caught up with this idea of text mining, but what about new kinds of reading, communication, new ways of interacting with the literature? 

We don't want to wait another twenty years for publishers to give us permission to do each and every new thing, so we need the rights to re-use articles in any way we can imagine, in apps, on the web, as audio, as mash-ups. Just providing access gets us to first base, enabling text mining will get us to second. Ensuring that innovators have the right to experiment and re-use the most up to date and comprehensive information is the home run.

 As for the timing of introducing FASTR, Doyle explained:

I think there is tremendous interest in the research community in overcoming unnecessary barriers to scientific collaboration. Universities and libraries nationwide are calling for better access to research that was federally funded. Right now, university libraries have to pay outrageous fees to be able to give their students access to academic journals, even when taxpayers have funded the research published in them. We need to lower the barriers to access to publicly funded research, especially as public colleges and universities in many states are having to respond to serious budget cuts. And I also think we need to make it easier for everyday people to access this information, because I think innovation can occur anywhere. The more people can access existing research, the higher the chances of a new scientific breakthrough. 

While the response from much of the information community has been exceedingly supportive, not everyone is pleased with this news. The American Association of Publishers (AAP) is staunchly opposed to FASTR. In a statement released on Feb. 14, AAP noted that:

[FASTR] would require federal agencies to undertake extensive, open-ended work already being performed successfully by the private sector. It would add significant, unspecified, ongoing costs to those agencies’ budgets in the midst of ongoing federal deficit reduction efforts. Finally, it would undermine publishers’ efforts to provide access to high-quality peer-review research publications in a sustainable way, while ignoring progress made by agencies collaborating with publishers to improve funding transparency.

Doyle and many others from the information community flat-out disagree with the AAP’s assertions. When asked if he had a response to the AAP statement, Doyle wrote:

The concern that FASTR would impose severe staffing and cost burdens on federal agencies is something the publishers have been reiterating for some time, but there is simply no credible evidence to back it up. In fact, the National Institutes of Health has already implemented a public access policy, and the agency reports that it spends 1/100thof 1 percent of its overall operating budget on its PubMed Central repository. That repository of 2.5 million articles is accessed by more than 700,000 individuals each day.

In addition, I would point out that, in fact, many private sector publishers have been perhaps a little too successful – running up 30 percent profit margins with what is essentially a monopoly on publishing peer-review research results. The fact of the matter is, what may be fantastic for a particular company’s bottom line may not be best for our country. That being said, we have drafted FASTR carefully to ensure that it wouldn’t undermine the affected publishers’ long-run viability; in fact, the bill guarantees private sector publishers exclusive 6-month rights to the research results. We believe that the 6-month embargo reflects a good balance between the rights of the publishers and the rights of the taxpayers.

The White House Directive: Increasing Access to the Results of Federally Funded Scientific Research

On Feb. 22, while news of FASTR was still hot, the Obama Administration issued a policy memorandum—also known as a White House Directive—to instruct key federal agencies to develop public access policies for research and digital data. The policy memorandum came from the administration’s Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP) and was signed by OSTP director John Holdren. The OSTP memorandum sets the principles for the policy by noting that:

The Administration is committed to ensuring that, to the greatest extent and with the fewest constraints possible and consistent with law and the objectives set out below, the direct results of federally funded scientific research are made available to and useful for the public, industry, and the scientific community. Such results include peer-reviewed publications and digital data.

The policy was released nearly a year after 65,000 members of the public signed a We the People petition asking for expanded public access to the results of taxpayer-funded research.

Heather Joseph, the executive director of the Scholarly Publishing and Academic Resources Coalition (SPARC), is quoted in a press release: “This is a watershed moment,” Joseph explained. “The Administration’s action marks a major step forward towards open access to scientific research.” She continued by stating, “The Directive will accelerate scientific discovery, improve education, and empower entrepreneurs to translate research into commercial ventures and jobs. It’s good for our nation, our economy, and our future.”

The White House Directive overlaps with FASTR but also has some small differences in the details. It covers a slightly larger group of agencies—any agency funding more than $100 million in research or development as compared to FASTR, which covers the 11 agencies contributing more than $100 million annually to research. Both sets of policies include provisions for re-use rights to further scientific research, but the White House Directive pushes for more by including provisions for ‘digital data:’

Access to digital data sets resulting from federally funded research allows companies to focus resources and efforts on understanding and exploiting discoveries. For example, open weather data underpins the forecasting industry, and making genome sequences publicly available has spawned many biotechnology innovations.

FASTR pushes for a 6-month embargo period, after which articles must be freely and publicly accessible; the White House Directive allows for a longer, 12-month embargo period with some room for negotiation. “Each agency … shall use a twelve-month post-publication embargo period as a guideline for making research papers publicly available; however, an agency may tailor its plan as necessary to address the objectives articulated in this memorandum, as well as the challenges and public interests that are unique to each field and mission combination.” How this will play out is yet to be determined.

Curiously, even though FASTR and the White House Directive are both designed to open up access to publicly funded research and FASTR was clearly condemned by the AAP, the two approaches have elicited vastly different responses. In the Feb. 22 statement issued by AAP in response to the OSTP policy, the AAP is supportive of the White House policy. The press release indicates that AAP feels that the White House policy “outlines a reasonable, balanced resolution of issues around public access to research funded by federal agencies.”

Tom Allen, president and CEO of AAP, explains in the same statement: “In stark contrast to angry rhetoric and unreasonable legislation offered by some, the OSTP takes a fair path that would enhance access for the public, acknowledge differences among agencies and scientific disciplines, and recognize the critical role publishers play in vetting, producing, establishing and preserving the integrity of scientific works.”

FASTR in Light of the OSTP Memorandum

Another key difference between the OSTP memo and FASTR is the nature of each—the OSTP policy is not a proposal; it is, quite simply, instructions from the White House to federal agencies. Federal agencies that meet the criteria stipulated in the memorandum are now required to enact and implement their own public access policies. FASTR, on the other hand, is a proposed bill—one that needs to be passed by Congress and signed by the President in order to be codified into law.

As Peter Suber (director, Harvard Open Access Project; Fellow, Berkman Center for Internet & Society; senior researcher, Scholarly Publishing and Academic Resource Coalition) explained in his blog: “The two approaches complement one another. FASTR does not make the White House directive unnecessary. FASTR may never be adopted. And if it is adopted, it will be after some time for study, education, lobbying, amendment, negotiation, and debate. By contrast, the White House directive takes effect today. The wheels are already turning.”

FASTR has a long road ahead. Maureen Sullivan, president of The American Library Association (ALA), encourages the library community to take action.

“Librarians have a strong commitment to ensuring access to information for all. So, the American Library Association was thrilled when Congress introduced the Fair Access to Science and Technology Research Act (FASTR)! This bill will ensure that students, researchers and teachers have access to important scientific articles. Now is the time to ask your legislator to cosponsor these bills and you can do that by accessing the ALA’s Legislative Action Center.”

While the focus of FASTR and the OSTP policy have been on providing U.S. taxpayers with access to federally funded research, the implications are much broader. On a policy level, the U.S. is playing catch-up as other parts of the world have moved ahead in mandating OA to research outputs. In terms of access, these developments have global impact—research included in digital repositories resulting from the OSTP policy and, if passed, through FASTR—will be freely accessible around the world to readers and researchers to enable text mining, data mining, and other computational techniques on the literature. 

Abby Clobridge is the founder of and principal consultant at FireOak Strategies (formerly Clobridge Consulting), a boutique firm specializing in knowledge management, information management, and open knowledge (open access, open data, open education). Abby has worked with a wide range of organizations throughout the world, including various United Nations agencies; private sector companies; colleges and research universities; nonprofit, intergovernmental, and multi-stakeholder organizations; and the news media. She can be found on Twitter (@aclobridge).

Email Abby Clobridge

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Comments Add A Comment
Posted By Stevan Harnad2/28/2013 5:31:50 PM


The new US OATP Presidential Directive requiring the largest US funding agencies to mandate OA within 12 months of publication is a wonderful step forward for the entire planet.

Here are some crucial implementational details that will maximize the mandates' effectiveness.

(1) Specify that the deposit of each article must be in an institutional repository (so the universities and research institutions can monitor and ensure compliance as well as adopt mandates of their own).

(2) Specify that the deposit must be done immediately upon publication.

(3) Urge (but do not require) authors to make the immediate-deposit immediately-OA.

(4) Urge (but do not require) authors to reserve the right to make their papers immediately-OA (and other re-use rights) in their contracts with their publishers (as in the Harvard-style mandates).

(5) Shorten, or, better, do not mention allowable OA embargoes at all (so as not to encourage publishers to adopt them).

(6) Implement the repositories' automated "email eprint request" Button (for embargoed [non-OA] deposits).

(7) Designate repository deposit as the sole mechanism for submitting publications for performance review, research assessment, grant application, or grant renewal.

(8) Implement rich usage and citation metrics in the institutional repositories as incentive for compliance.

If this is all done universally, universal OA will soon be upon us -- and a global transition to affordable, sustainable Fair-Gold OA (instead of today's premature, double-paid Fool's-Gold), plus as much CC-BY as users need and authors wish to provide -- will not be far behind.

Thanks for your note. I'm sure readers will appreciate your suggestions for ways to help implement the OSTP policy in ways that help to maximize its effectiveness! -- Abby Clobridge

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