White House Signals Interest in Open Access with Public Call for Comments

On December 10, the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP) announced a public forum to discuss public access to federally funded research. "The administration is dedicated to maximizing the return on Federal investments in R&D," reads the announcement in the Federal Register [PDF].

The discussion focuses largely on proposal to extend to other governmental agencies—such as the National Science Foundation, the Department of Defense, and NASA—a public access mandate similar to the one governing National Institute of Health-funded research. The National Institute of Health (NIH) is itself the largest federal funder of research, awarding more than $30.5 billion annually, and is covered by the December 2007 mandatory public access policy requiring the deposit of funded articles into the PubMed Central digital archive.

The OSTP post also goes on to outline a number of the arguments commonly put forward in favor of open access, including simplified access to scholarly publications and a central storage and search infrastructure that would facilitate researchers' ability to use the materials.

Blog-based discussion

In line with the Obama administration's determination to use the web as a means of engaging with the public, OSTP is soliciting comment via blog in three parts: on implementation (December 10 to 20), features and technology (December 21 to 31), and management (January 1 to 7). The discussion on OSTP's blog also parallels a more traditional call for public comment to be published in the Federal Register.

In the comments on the blog, dozens of users have weighed in on OSTP's detailed initial questions about the implementation of a mandate, including which agencies should enact public access policies, what length embargo period is appropriate, which version of an author's article to submit, and whether deposit should be mandatory or voluntary.

The overwhelming majority of comments—with a plurality from one advocate, Stevan Harnad, Professor of Cognitive Science at Southampton University—are strongly in favor of a mandatory policy with little to no embargo period, covering all or most federal agencies. (A side debate has emerged regarding Harnad's role; see commentary in the blog's comments, as well as a post registering disapproval on the Society for Scholarly Publishing's Scholarly Kitchen blog.)

Allies at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue

The OSTP announcement comes as yet another encouraging sign for open access advocates, following the reintroduction of the Federal Research Public Access Act (FRPAA) in the Senate this year by Senators Joseph Lieberman (I-CT) and John Cornyn (R-TX), and a number of open access resolutions made by faculties nationwide.

Moreoever, given the Obama administration's consistent call for transparency and its recent push for a Comprehensive Open Government Plan, those advocates see the White House as a potentially great ally if comes out strongly in favor of open access.

"It's confirmation that this is an issue that is of national importance," said Heather Joseph, executive director of the Scholarly Publishing and Academic Resources Coalition (SPARC), adding that, while many librarians have been staunch advocates for the cause of open access, the administration could influence the debate on a much broader level.

It also seems clear that, aside from the political and legislative implications, a statement from the White House could potentially persuade some administrators and faculty at institutions where open access mandates from other campuses have failed to do so in the past.

Library issue in the end

But any federal open access mandate also stands to come back around as a library and digital archives issues eventually. “[Libraries] were the first community to clue in, on a coordinated scale, to what an open access world would look like,” Joseph said. And it will likely come back down to librarians and archivists to work out many of the practical aspects of the mandate if and when it is handed down from the legislative level.

During the comment period, it will be up to librarians to advise on how an public access mandate can be shaped in order to add the least additional burden to libraries and archives. A different policy governing each governmental agency would only increase the cost of implementation, Joseph said, and it is incumbent upon librarians to help divine the closest thing to a one-size-fits-all solution