Thoughts on the new White House OSTP open access memo

Cross-posted on the University of Cambridge’s Unlocking Research blog.

In the USA last Thursday, the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy announced its decision to mandate public access to all federally funded research articles and data. From 2026, the permitted embargo period of one year for funded publications will be removed and all publications arising from federal funding will have to be immediately accessible through a repository. Although more details are to be announced, my colleague Niamh Tumelty, the OSC’s Head of Open Research Services, shared a helpful summary of the policy and some initial reaction here. I want to offer my own personal assessment of what the new policy might mean from the perspective of open access to research articles, something we are working hard to promote and support throughout the university.

To be sure, the new OSTP memo is big news: the US produces a huge amount of research that will now be made immediately available without payment to the world at large. Following in the footsteps of Plan S in Europe, the open access policy landscape is rapidly evolving away from embargo periods and towards immediate access to research across all disciplines. Publishing industry consultants Clarke & Esposito have even argued that this intervention will make the subscription journal all the more unviable, eventually leading to its demise.

Indeed, responses from the publishing industry have been mixed. The STM Association, for example, offer a muted one-paragraph response claiming tepid support for the memo, while organisations such as the AAP were more vocally against what they see as a lack of ‘formal, meaningful consultation or public input’ on the memo, despite the fact that many more details are still to be announced (presumably, following consultation). A similar sense of frustration was displayed by some of the authors of the industry-supported Scholarly Kitchen blog. It’s fair to say that the publishing industry itself – at least the part of it that makes money from journal subscriptions – has not welcomed the new memo with open arms.

Understandably, funders and advocacy organisations have welcomed the news. Johan Rooryck from Coalition S called the memo a ‘game changer for scholarly publishing’, while the Open Research Funders Group ‘applauds bold OSTP action’ in its response. Open access advocates SPARC described the memo as a ‘historic win’ for open access and a ‘giant step towards realizing our collective goal of ensuring that sharing knowledge is a human right – for everyone’. Certainly, for those arguing in favour of greater public access to research, the memo will indeed result in just this. But I still have my reservations.

My PhD thesis analysed and assessed the creation and implementation of open access policy in the UK. As Cambridge researchers no doubt know, the open access policy landscape is composed of a number of mandates, with varying degrees of complexity, and affects the vast majority of UK researchers in one way or another. This is for better and for worse: there is an increase in bureaucracy associated with open access policy (particularly through repositories), even though it results in greater access to research. However, when you remove this bureaucracy through more seamless approaches to OA like transformative agreements, there is a risk of consolidating the power of large commercial publishers who dominate this space and make obscene profits (a fear also shared by Jeff Pooley in his write-up of the policy). There is therefore a delicate balance to be struck between simply throwing money at market-based solutions and requiring researchers and librarians to take on more of the burden of compliance.

The problem with indiscriminate policy mandates for public access to research, such as the OSTP’s memo, is that they shore up the idea that publishing has to be provided by a private industry that is not especially accountable to research communities or the university more broadly. This is precisely because these policies are indiscriminate and therefore apply to everyone equally, which for academic publishing means benefitting those already in a good position to profit. Larger commercial publishers have worked out better than anyone else how to monetise open access through a range of different business models. As long as researchers need to continue publishing with the bigger publishers, which they do for career reasons, these publishers will always be in a better position to benefit from open access policies. It is hard to imagine how the individual funding bodies could implement the OSTP memo in a way that does foreground a more bibliodiverse publishing system at the expense of commercialism (not least because this goal does not appear to be the target of the memo).  

I do not mean to overplay the pessimism here: it is great that we are heading for a world of much more open access research. The point now is to couple this policy with funding and support to continue building the capacity of an ethical and accountable publishing ecosystem, all while trying to embed these ethical alternatives within the mainstream. This kind of culture change cannot be achieved by mandates like the OSTP is proposing, but it can be achieved by the harder work of raising awareness of alternatives and highlighting the downsides of current approaches to publishing. It is also important to reveal the ways in which research cultures shape how researchers decide to publish their work – often at the expense of experimentation and openness – and how they can be changed for the better.

So I am interested to see how the memo is implemented in practice, especially how it is funded and the conditions set on immediate access to research. I am also keen to see what role, if any, rights retention plays in the implementation and how US libraries decide to support the policy and the changing environment more broadly. Ultimately, however, the move to a more scholar-led and scholar-governed ecosystem will not occur on an open/closed binary, nor on a top-down/bottom-up one, and so we must find a range of ways to support new cultures of knowledge production and dissemination in the university and beyond.