The New US Government Guidelines on Access to Federally Funded Research: A List of FAQs for Research Journals and Publishers
The global movement toward open access and open science has been gaining momentum over the years. It received an additional boost on August 25, 2022, when the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP) of the US released a memorandum titled “Ensuring Free, Immediate, and Equitable Access to Federally Funded Research.” This memo contains various guidelines for federal agencies with research and development expenditures (e.g., National Science Foundation [NSF], National Institutes of Health [NIH]), which will come into effect by January 1, 2026. The key points of the memo are as follows:
- There is no longer an optional 12-month publication embargo for federally funded peer-reviewed research articles, as stipulated in an earlier 2013 memo. In other words, scientific articles resulting from research funded by any US federal institute or agency will have to be made publicly accessible without any 12-month window during which the articles could be behind a paywall. Previously, such articles needed to be made publicly accessible only 12 months post-publication.
- Data published in peer-reviewed research articles should be immediately available upon publication, and other research data should be available within a reasonable timeframe. This means that scientific data underlying peer-reviewed scholarly publications will have to be made publicly available at the time of publication.
As the US government, particularly the NIH, is one of the world’s largest funders of research, the new policy will likely result in significant changes across the scientific publishing landscape. Below, we’ve compiled some of the key questions academic journals and publishers have around this memo.
Is publishing in an open access journal mandatory for federal funding?
Of note, the OSTP does not mandate publishing in open access (OA) journals. Instead, federal agencies are required to ensure that peer-reviewed work from their grant recipients is made available in an agency-approved public repository. Individual agencies are allowed to develop their own protocols about how this is to be done, and these protocols have to be completed in the next six months to a year.
Does this memo cover only original articles?
The new policy applies to scientific manuscripts where any of the authors have received federal funding for the research concerned, not just the corresponding author. And since the memorandum mentions “all peer-reviewed scholarly publications,” it will likely apply to not just journal articles but also conference proceedings, book chapters, etc.
What version of the research paper has to be publicly accessible?
OSTP specifies that the peer-reviewed version of the paper needs to be publicly accessible. In other words, merely posting a pre-submitted version of the article as a preprint will not comply with the new guidelines. In addition, the publication needs to be made available in a machine-readable format, which means that other researchers or any member of the general public can utilize the research through text and data mining, computational analysis, etc.
Research consumption patterns could change. How will journals be affected?
The zero-embargo policy can help scientists access and utilize information more quickly, as they are not limited to only those journals their institute has purchased a subscription for. One possible fallout could be that libraries will trim down their subscriptions, because their researchers can anyway access a lot more articles outside of paywalls. Consequently, we can foresee a certain decline in subscription journals. However, it’s unlikely that well-established subscription or hybrid journals will suddenly become unviable or have to flip to open access overnight. It’s more probable that they will have to seriously consider transforming their long-term strategies, such as by targeting authors unaffected by such funding mandates (e.g., researchers in China, which recently overtook the US in research output) or by publishing a higher proportion of content that is not based on federally funded research (e.g., opinion articles, commissioned literature reviews).
With a larger number of articles available outside paywalls, journals will likely need to innovate and determine new ways in which they can provide value to their subscriber bases in the long run. Another possibility is that both journals and authors will be incentivized to utilize tools and techniques to increase the visibility of their articles; this will be necessary as the already-crowded digital landscape receives an additional influx of articles that are not blocked by paywalls.
What does this policy mean for article processing charges?
Prima facie, the new OSTP policy looks like it will boost the number of authors submitting to open access journals. However, as mentioned earlier, the situation is much more complex. Authors have the option of depositing a peer-reviewed copy of their work in a public repository approved by their funding agency; their funding agency may not make it mandatory for the article to be published as OA. Furthermore, the OSTP memo specifies that “federal agencies should allow researchers to include reasonable publication costs”; this may mean that article processing charges (APCs) could come under increasing scrutiny by funders, and journals and publishers can anticipate having to position their APCs to show that they are providing real value to authors.
What other options can journals explore to remain financially stable?
Several journals and publishers have already begun to explore new revenue streams, especially by leveraging their rich existing content resources. These streams include curated content packages for specific researcher segments, training and educational programs, products catering to R&D needs of industry or practitioners, and multimedia resources like webinars or podcasts (which can be a source of advertising revenue). All these are likely to grow in the future, and journals and publishers may also invest in even more products, services, and solutions in order to diversify and maintain their revenue streams.
Given the prominent role of the US in global research, few journals or publishers will be unaffected by the new OSTP memo. It’s still too early to say, but we can expect a significant transformation of the academic publishing landscape over the next decade, especially if this policy spurs similar efforts from the governments of other countries.