Biden open access order under threat from Republican budget bill

As annual US budget process approaches its crescendo, Republicans try to block order that forbids paywalls on federally funded findings

August 11, 2023
Source: Getty Images

A coalition of leading open-access research publishers is warning against a move in the US Congress to reverse a Biden administration order to make federally funded research findings immediately and freely available.

Joe Biden announced the shift a year ago, aiming to end decades of open-access debates by setting a 2025 deadline for ending any paywalls on the published results of federally funded research.

Republican leaders in the US House of Representatives, however, have advanced a fiscal year 2024 budget bill with language that – without any explanation for their position – would block the Biden order.

The heads of eight leading open-access-format science publishers wrote to Republican lawmakers warning that their plan “will prevent American taxpayers from seeing the societal benefits of the more than $90 billion [£70 billion] in scientific research that the US government funds each year”.

Campus resource: Open access is inevitable – only the 'how' remains up for discussion

“Science for the few who can access it – as opposed to the many who pay for it – is inefficient as scientific or governmental policy,” say the publishers, which include Plos, eLife, Frontiers and PeerJ.

Experts tracking the situation generally acknowledged that the provision was probably unlikely to become law, given the opposition it would generate from Mr Biden and Democrats who control the Senate. The academic publishing consulting firm Clarke & Esposito ridiculed the provision, saying that its industry sources deny that traditional subscription-based publishers have any involvement in the Republican effort to kill the Biden administration order issued last August by Alondra Nelson, then director of the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy.

“Rather, the language in the bill is a far more blunt instrument drafted by far-right members of Congress opposed to all things they perceive as ‘woke’,” Clarke & Esposito say in a blog posting. “Essentially, a search for words such as ‘diversity,’ ‘inclusion,’ and ‘equity’ turned up the Nelson Memo, which has the word ‘equitable’ in its title, and thus it became one of the many government activities to be targeted for defunding by the bill.”

Yet the political threat cannot be dismissed, said Michael Clarke, managing partner at Clarke & Esposito, given the caustic state of politics and the eventual need for trade-offs in any federal budget deal. “If the Democrats and the White House have to pick their battles, is defence of the Nelson Memo high enough priority to make the cut?” he asked.

The mere inclusion of the issue in the budget bill suggests a fight ahead, acknowledged Julia Kostova, the director of US publishing development at Frontiers. “While it may be small, the risk is that in all the upcoming negotiation for the bill’s position on various contested issues, the Nelson Memo is traded away,” Dr Kostova said.

A leading association of academic publishers, the STM Association, said that it has had concerns about the Nelson Memo, but has been working toward its implementation and did not ask lawmakers for any effort to block the initiative.

At the same time, said the association’s chief executive, Caroline Sutton, “we understand that Congress has had concerns about oversight of public access policies. These concerns may be reflected by this provision.”

The draft federal budget written by House Republicans would increase overall research and development spending by 19 per cent, while its counterpart in the Democrat-controlled Senate would cut it by 4 per cent, according to analysis provided by the American Association for the Advancement of Science.

The House version, however, would sharply cut some key parts of National Institutes of Health and the National Science Foundation, while primarily reserving increases for military accounts. Both the House and Senate versions “would make drastic cuts to basic research – 51 per cent and 48 per cent respectively in FY 2024”, said Joanne Padrón Carney, the association’s chief government relations officer.

Register to continue

Why register?

  • Registration is free and only takes a moment
  • Once registered, you can read 3 articles a month
  • Sign up for our newsletter
Please Login or Register to read this article.

Related articles

Reader's comments (3)

Joe Esposito has a long history of sticking up for subscription publishers. I don't believe for a second his argument that this is just a Republican culture war reaction to keywords in the bill. Companies like Elsevier donate millions of dollars to Republican (and Democrat) lawmakers in order to ensure their compliance. The idea that they haven't called their dogs in Congress to heel on this is laughable. Of course they have.
No one I know in the US scholarly publishing industry thinks this is anything more than a general push by hard-Right Congressional Republicans to strike down anything they see as “woke”.
No one I know in the US scholarly publishing industry thinks this is anything more than a general push by hard-Right Congressional Republicans to strike down anything they see as “woke”.