Trump hesitates on plan for open access mandate

After two years of study, US plans more consultations on bypassing journal paywalls

February 20, 2020
The White House
Source: iStock

The Trump administration is backing away from a widely reported plan to bypass publisher paywalls on scientific research resulting from federal investment, making plans instead to study the matter further.

The chief White House science adviser, Kelvin Droegemeier, said that after two years and nearly 100 meetings with publishers, universities, researchers and others, administration officials wanted more consultation.

“We are casting a wide net to include as many voices of the research community as possible” in the policy, Professor Droegemeier, director of the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy, said.

Universities generally welcomed the move. “Given the pros and cons of making such changes, we see OSTP’s request for input from key stakeholders as a positive step,” said Tobin Smith, vice-president for policy at the Association for American Universities, the leading grouping of major research institutions.

But their academic libraries − the units within universities that are largely charged with managing journal subscriptions and their costs − appeared less clear on the need for more delay.

“[It] looks like they are following a fairly tried-and-true trajectory here,” said Heather Joseph, executive director of the Scholarly Publishing and Academic Resources Coalition, describing a decade of such consultations across two administrations.

“I really do hope this one results in a policy refresh,” added Ms Joseph, whose group represents academic and research libraries.

Reports toward the end of last year said the Trump administration was in the late stages of drafting an executive order that would require free and immediate access to articles describing federally funded research.

Professor Droegemeier had told Times Higher Education earlier in the year that he was sympathetic to the open-access position.

One leading lawmaker, Thom Tillis, a Republican senator from North Carolina who chairs the Subcommittee on Intellectual Property of the Senate Judiciary Committee, publicly called on the administration to reconsider.

He was joined by more than 135 academic research societies and publishers that wrote to the administration arguing such a move would “effectively nationalise the valuable American intellectual property that we produce”.

Current US policy generally limits to 12 months the amount of time that published scientific findings stemming from federal funding can be kept behind a subscription barrier. The expected Trump policy would have reduced that time to zero. That type of approach doesn’t ban subscription-based models but requires researcher findings be made freely available in some type of format, such as an online pre-print server.

That idea is similar to that of Plan S in Europe, where organisers hope to see the change take effect next year.

The Trump administration said in its announcement that it would accept “additional comments on public access to peer-reviewed scholarly publications, data and code resulting from federally funded research”, with the consultation running until 16 March.

But Ms Joseph said that 100 meetings over the past two years already sounded like “pretty substantive” consultation.

Mr Smith, however, called the subject complex. “It is critical,” he said, “that the federal government not rush and get it right, so as not to institute a new policy in this area without first receiving input, and maximizing buy-in for a new policy, from all of the affected parties.”

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