White House OSTP memo plots course for open access

Elsevier welcomes collaborative approach and acknowledgement of publisher’s value, but warns the work isn’t done yet as 'the devil is in the details' to avoid unintended consequences

Alicia Wise, PhD

The Author

As Director of Universal Access for Elsevier,Dr. Alicia Wise(@wisealic) is responsible for delivering Elsevier’s vision for universal access to high-quality scientific publications. She leads strategy and policy in areas such as open access, philanthropic access programs, content accessibility, and access technologies. Based in Oxford, she has a PhD in anthropology from theUniversity of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

[divider] There is widespread interest and support from all stakeholders in the principle of open access. What is essential is to craft open-access policies that work in practice, that are sustainable, and that maintain the quality and integrity of the scientific record.

The issues are considerably more complex than they may appear on the surface. Those most advanced in formulating a lasting solution have been the Finch Group in the UK and the Groupement Français de l’Industrie de l’Information in France.

The long-awaited release of the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP) memorandum changes this. It adds a welcome third addition to the list and outlines a constructive way toward open access. The memo directs each US funding agency with over $100 million in annual research expenditure to develop a plan to support public access to the results of research funded by the federal government, including results published in scholarly publications. And — rather unusually for an issue that can be unnecessarily divisive in the research community — there is much to like in the memo from all perspectives.

For publishers, the OSTP has opened the door to what we believe will be constructive discussions with US federal funding agencies. The policy recognizes both the importance of the widest possible access to journal articles and the contribution that publishers make to the dissemination of quality research findings and the need for publishing costs to be met in a sustainable way.

Both the SPARC open access advocacy network and the Association of American Publishers welcomed the policy, albeit with some interesting differences in emphasis and interpretation. So it’s not that there won’t be difficult discussions ahead; it’s just that we enter them with OSTP guidance that endorses collaboration and consultation as the best way to develop good policies.

Here’s why we’re encouraged by the OSTP memo

1. It promotes gold open access funded through publishing charges and flexible embargo periods for green open access. The memo leaves open the option of gold open access (where authors or sponsors pay for publishing costs), which enables government funders the flexibility to provide immediate open access to the final versions of articles that flow from their research funding. The memo also supports green open access (where authors post a version of their article in a repository like PubMed) at 12 months or another appropriate time frame. This is so important because green open access is not in itself a business model, and journals in subject areas such as mathematics and social sciences cannot cover publication costs through subscriptions if their content is made available at no cost too early.

2. It seeks to leverage publishing industry investments rather than duplicate efforts.
The memo stipulates that each agency plan must contain a strategy for leveraging existing archives and fostering public-private partnerships with scientific journals. There are numerous objectives outlined for the agencies that offer opportunities for such partnerships, where publishers would be able to facilitate implementation of the agencies’ plans. This will help government agencies work within existing budgets and avoid duplicating the work publishers already do well. Elsevier and other publishers are already collaborating with US federal funding agencies on a range of access enabling initiatives – for example FundRef and ORCID – and we very much look forward to continuing these constructive discussions.

3. It encourages collaboration. The OSTP memo acknowledges that publishers provide valuable services that are essential for ensuring the high quality and integrity of scholarly publications and that it is critical these services continue to be made available. For example, the memo says that government agencies must maximize access to digital scientific data created by federal funds and encourage cooperation with the private sector to manage this.

Good news for open access

According to several news outlets, open-access advocates have called the memo a “landmark” and “watershed” moment. I agree wholeheartedly. The memo suggests how to move forward with open access models in a reasoned way that recognizes the complexity and importance of the issues.

In an ideal world, I would like to see those same open-access advocates withdraw their support from unnecessary and divisive open access legislation now introduced in the US at federal level (under the acronym FASTR) and in six US states (under a range of acronyms). As Elsevier acknowledged last year when we withdrew our support from the RWA, legislation is not the way forward in this space. It is now time for mature conversations and collaboration to make open access work in practice. Legislation is too blunt an instrument, the devil is in the details here, and all stakeholders will be better able to identify those models that make open access work well for the long term if we work together.

Looking ahead

We understand that the policy does not clarify in detail how every part of the process will work. We don’t want the system to be overly complicated, but providing access to researchers is not a one-size fit all approach. We know we have detailed and sometimes difficult discussions ahead.

For example, Elsevier believes that gold open access is generally preferable to green because it provides immediate access to the published version of record and reflects a demonstrably sustainable business model.

Green open access for subscription content adds additional costs of managing institutional repositories, involves duplication of hosting effort by stakeholders, is operationally complex, and if not done well could undermine the integrity of the scientific record by disseminating draft/multiple versions of articles. Some proponents of green open access have even suggested that articles could be published without any peer review at all, in order to try and minimize or eliminate the costs of publication. We do not believe that any such approach would be sensible to maintain the credibility of scientific research.

For these reasons, we view green open access as a second best to gold open access, although we are not opposed to green open access in principle – particularly if it can be made to work in a properly sustainable fashion through sensible embargo periods.

We at Elsevier are committed – as are other publishers – to continuing to work with funding agencies to find ways to implement open access policies that ensure the quality of the scientific record and that are sustainable in the long term. Together we will hopefully clarify some of the actions that are perhaps unclear in the OSTP memorandum. We share a sense of excitement about this opportunity to work closely together to advance science and provide even wider public access.

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