February 11, 2016

Administration Takes Faster Action on Access to Federally Funded Research

In a policy memorandum released today, Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP) Director John Holdren directed Federal agencies with more than $100 million in research and development spending to develop plans to make the published results of federally funded research freely available to the public within one year of publication, and requiring researchers to better account for and manage the digital data resulting from federally funded scientific research.

In one swoop, Holdren may have achieved many of the aims of the Fair Access to Science and Technology Research Act (FASTR), the recently introduced legislation which many feared is likely to die in committee as its predecessor FRPAA repeatedly did.

There are, however, some substantive differences between OSTP’s directive and FASTR—besides which branch of government they come from. FASTR set a six month deadline rather than one year. And while FASTR does permit other repositories as an alternative to agency-maintained archives, OSTP makes that the preferred strategy, asking agencies to create “a strategy for leveraging existing archives, where appropriate, and fostering public private partnerships with scientific journals.” And while FASTR would require submitted papers to permit “computational analysis by state-of-the-art technologies,” OSTP only “encourages innovation in accessibility and interoperability.”

Nonetheless, the memorandum and the bill clearly have a common goal in mind. “Access to digital data sets resulting from federally funded research allows companies to focus resources and efforts on understanding and exploiting discoveries,” the directive reads in part. “In addition, wider availability of peer-reviewed publications and scientific data in digital formats will create innovative economic markets for services related to curation, preservation, analysis, and visualization. … These policies will accelerate scientific breakthroughs and innovation, promote entrepreneurship, and enhance economic growth, and job creation.”

In one respect, the memorandum is stricter than the legislation: while FASTR would give agencies a year from enactment to produce appropriate policies, OSTP gave them six months, and made it clear that they’re expected to fund these activities with no increase in budget.

OSTP says the new policy “reflects substantial inputs from scientists and scientific organizations, publishers, members of Congress, and other members of the public,” including some 65,000 people who signed a petition for public access to federally funded research.

The publishers’ input, in particular, is clearly reflected in several key differences between this and FASTR that closely mirror the American Association of Publisher’s critique of the legislation: while the 12 month embargo is a guideline, agencies are empowered to “tailor its plan as necessary to address the objectives articulated in this memorandum, as well as the challenges and public interests that are unique to each field and mission combination.” (It’s unclear whether that means they’re allowed to shorten the embargo, or only to extend it.) The memo also calls on agencies to encourage public-private collaboration to maximize the potential for interoperability between public and private platforms, avoid unnecessary duplication of existing mechanisms, recognize “proprietary interests, business confidential information, and intellectual property rights,” and avoid “significant negative impact on intellectual property rights, innovation, and U.S. competitiveness.”

In a clause that evokes the ghost of Aaron Swartz, the memo also states, “Agency plans must also describe, to the extent feasible, procedures the agency will take to help prevent the unauthorized mass redistribution of scholarly publications.”

Notably AAP, which decried FASTR, supports the OSTP’s new policy, saying it “outlines a reasonable, balanced resolution of issues around public access to research funded by federal agencies.” Tom Allen, President and CEO of AAP, in a statement contrasted the “fair” policy to “unreasonable legislation” such as FASTR. “The key to the success of the policy, however, depends on how the agencies use their flexibility to avoid negative impacts to the successful system of scholarly communication that advances science, technology and innovation,” said Allen.

Libraries are explicitly referenced twice in the policy’s text: once as one of the stakeholders whose views should be solicited by the agencies, and again as a possible partner for the agencies in maintaining repositories.

Almost immediately after the policy was issued, the Association of Research Libraries (ARL) issued a statement applauding it. “This memorandum reflects how 21st-century science is conducted in order to advance discovery while, at the same time, it makes federal investment in research broadly available. ARL commends the Obama administration for recognizing the importance and value of making the results of federally funded research publicly available,” said Wendy Lougee, President of ARL and University Librarian, McKnight Presidential Professor, University of Minnesota Libraries.

The Scholarly Publishing and Academic Resources Coalition (SPARC), a division of ARL, also applauded the directive. “This is a watershed moment. The Administration’s action marks a major step forward towards open access to scientific research,” said Heather Joseph, Executive Director of SPARC, which works to broaden public access to scholarly research. SPARC did not, however, feel that it makes FASTR unnecessary.  “The Directive is a major achievement for both open access and open government. We should now take the next step and make open access the law of the land. We commend Senators Cornyn and Wyden and Representatives Doyle, Lofgren, and Yoder for introducing FASTR and call on Congress to pass it without delay,” said Joseph.

Steven Bell, Association of College and Research Libraries (ACRL) president 2012-2013, told LJ, ” Wow. This is big, profoundly historic and incredibly exciting. ACRL members, along with our partners in the academic community, have worked long and hard to advocate for expanded public access among federal agencies other than NIH. We celebrate the White House Directive that will make it happen now.”

However, Bell, too, felt that the policy does not obviate the need to pass legislation. “We must still strongly advocate for the passage of FASTR. Though it will take more time and present a greater struggle, the academic community needs a lasting legislative resolution for expanded public access to federally funded research. For today, we are extremely gratified by the Obama administration’s action.”

Besides the usual library suspects, the policy was applauded by the National Science Foundation and several of the agencies themselves, including the Department of Energy’s Office of Science, the Department of Agriculture, NASA, and the Department of Commerce.

For full text, commentary, and updates, see INFOdocket.com.

Meredith Schwartz About Meredith Schwartz

Meredith Schwartz (mschwartz@mediasourceinc.com) is Executive Editor of Library Journal.

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