US open access mandate seen as painful but needed

Widely expected Plan S-style order hailed as ‘major boost’ to global movement

January 7, 2020
White House

An expected move by the Trump administration to mandate immediate open access publication of federally funded research has been hailed a major step away from the subscription journal model, with the expected damage to some of the US’ academic societies seen by some as a potentially necessary trade-off.

The White House was widely understood to be drafting an executive order that would follow in the footsteps of Plan S, the European-led initiative that from next January will require articles supported by participating funders to be made freely available.

The move would be a long-awaited win for scientific progress and taxpayer fairness, according to the Scholarly Publishing and Academic Resources Coalition, which represents 200 university library systems.

But the Association of American Publishers and its members – many of them scientific societies – have argued that the anticipated executive order “would wipe out a significant sector of our economy”.

Members such as the American Mathematical Society use revenue generated by their academic journals to subsidise other activities critical to the nation’s scientific advancement, said Robert Harington, the society’s associate executive director.

Ivy Anderson, who has helped lead the University of California system into a battle with one of the world’s biggest academic publishers, Elsevier, in a bid to force a shift to open access, said that she was sympathetic to academic societies but warned that they needed to face the coming reality.

“Publishers who insist on viewing the transition as an existential threat rather than an opportunity will turn that into a self-fulfilling prophecy,” said Ms Anderson, a director at the California Digital Library. “We want to be helpful in that process, and are prepared to work in creative partnership with publishers towards that end.”

Robert-Jan Smits, the lead architect of Plan S who is now president of Eindhoven University of Technology, agreed that academic societies would have to adapt, and said that a US order would be a “major boost” to the open access movement globally.

“They will have to go through a transition, and that will be painful, and that would mean perhaps some of them will go bust,” said Mr Smits.

The details of the administration’s plan remained unclear, but the executive order has been described as making its way through the White House approval process.

A spokeswoman for the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy said that an interagency grouping it leads “continues to learn about opportunities to maximise access to publicly funded research”.

But the OSTP’s director, Kelvin Droegemeier, who also serves as the president’s chief science adviser, made it clear in an interview with Times Higher Education last year that he was sympathetic to the open access movement.

US taxpayers currently spend more than $60 billion (£46 billion) on supporting science. Appeals to keep such research behind paywalls seemed unwarranted, said Jeff MacKie-Mason, university librarian at the University of California, Berkeley.

Elsevier has faced widespread criticism for reaping profit margins of 35 per cent or more by charging universities for subscriptions to journals filled with taxpayer-financed research.

More quietly, however, many of the largest professional society publishers – while legally non-profit – reaped similar levels of financial gain, Professor MacKie-Mason said.

As such, he said, “it is hard to swallow their cries of impending doom”.

The pending Trump plan, Professor MacKie-Mason said, was likely to be softer than Plan S, which he described as aiming in the long term to ensure open access to the final published versions of articles. He said that the Trump administration appeared to be using the government’s current terms, which can be satisfied by posting versions of articles that have been approved by the author but not yet through final journal editing.

Currently such versions of articles reporting federally sponsored research must be made freely available within 12 months of publication. The administration was expected to grant at least one, and as many as three, years of notice before eliminating the 12-month exclusivity period.

paul.basken@timeshighereducation.com

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Print headline: US open access mandate hailed as a ‘major boost’ to global movement

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