Access to Free Academic Publications Growing through Slow Steps

On February 22, 2012 the Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP) announced the goal of making all publicly financed scientific publications freely available to the public one year following publication. The policy applies to federal agencies with more than $100 million in research and development expenditures.

As the OSTP announcement recognizes, “OSTP has been looking into this issue for some time,” meaning that this has been a significant issue for years. A congressional attempt to reverse this trend was dropped last year. In the Research Works Act (RWA or HR 3699), congress introduced legislation to reverse the National Institutes of Health policy that requires all research with NIH funding to be freely accessible within twelve months of publication. A useful explanation of the NIH policy is available here.

The new OSTP policy extends this policy of public dissemination to the next category of research, that which is funded by the larger federal agencies. As such, this will be a significant step forward.

In the OSTP statement, it highlighted that “[t]he Obama Administration is committed to the proposition that citizens deserve easy access to the results of scientific research their tax dollars have paid for.” The policy was also part of a We the People petition process. Dr. Holden, director of the OSTP is here:

The policy is not inherently calling for open access. The actual plan is more complex. It calls for a multitude of considerations to be incorporated by each agency:

To the extent feasible and consistent with law; agency mission; resource constraints; U.S. national, homeland, and economic security; and the objectives listed below, the results of unclassified research that are published in peer-reviewed publications directly arising from Federal funding should be stored for long-term preservation and publicly accessible to search, retrieve, and analyze in ways that maximize the impact and accountability of the Federal research investment.

In developing their public access plans, agencies shall seek to put in place policies that enhance innovation and competitiveness by maximizing the potential to create new business opportunities and are otherwise consistent with the principles articulated in section 1. [The Policy Principles.]

Agency plans must also describe, to the extent feasible, procedures the agency will take to help prevent the unauthorized mass redistribution of scholarly publications.

To see the new policy memorandum, please visit:

This is another modest, but important step towards making publications funded with federal dollars subject to unfettered free access to the public. Giving the publishers a one-year exclusive window may make practical sense and encourage investment in peer review, but ultimately the federal funding – and university public funding – vastly outweighs that of private publishers. In the end, the public investment in this research should be matched with public access. The work of the OSTP regarding its new policy is a positive step in this direction.