Overview:

After decades of struggle with scholarly publications protecting a subscription-based business model, open access for federally funded research has achieved a key win.

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On August 25, the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP) updated its 2013 memo on research materials to eliminate a loophole used by scholarly publications to protect their business model. New policy guidance calls on agencies to ensure that “publications and their supporting data resulting from federally funded research [are] publicly accessible without an embargo on their free and public release”. This marks a huge leap from the 12-month embargo that still limited publicly funded data to those with pre-existing access to library and other institutional subscriptions.

All agencies must comply no later than December 31, 2025. As Dr. Alondra Nelson, head of the OSTP, explained: “When federally funded research is available to the public, it can improve lives, provide policymakers with important evidence with which to make critical decisions, accelerate the rates of discovery and translation, and drive more equitable outcomes across every sector of society”. But this has been an uphill battle, as peer-reviewed scholarly publications have held academic institutions, researchers, and the general public in a profit-driven bind for decades.

Researchers don’t receive money for publishing (ostensibly, to protect the integrity of the scientific process), but often have to pay to have their articles published after they’ve been accepted: a critical achievement, if researchers want to advance in their careers. Meanwhile, scholarly publications charge university and other library systems a subscription fee for access to their materials, which excludes average citizens from the fruits of research paid for by their tax dollars.

The fight for freedom of information has exacted a heavy human toll. As the latest memo notes, COVID-19 highlighted the importance of collaborative access in many research fields, which also include “cancer, clean energy, economic disparities, and climate change”. But one of the most notable casualties of this struggle was Aaron Swartz, who in the year of the first OSTP memo took his life in part after incurring legal retaliation for cybercrimes related to trying to make academic articles open access. Swartz, an acclaimed programmer influential in the development of the RSS feed format, Creative Commons, and Reddit, outlined the injustice of our current system in his 2008 “Guerilla Open Access Manifesto”:

The world’s entire scientific and cultural heritage, published over centuries in books and journals, is increasingly being digitized and locked up by a handful of private corporations. Want to read the papers featuring the most famous results of the sciences? You’ll need to send enormous amounts to publishers like Reed Elsevier.

Those with access to these resources—students, librarians, scientists—you have been given a privilege. You get to feed at this banquet of knowledge while the rest of the world is locked out. But you need not—indeed, morally, you cannot—keep this privilege for yourselves. You have a duty to share it with the world. And you have: trading passwords with colleagues, filling download requests for friends.

A similar struggle over open access has been playing out this year over online media. In Hachette v. Internet Archive, book publishers filed a copyright infringement claim that challenges the Internet Archive’s right to distribute digital copies of books it’s paid for. Complicating this legal battle over library rights is the Internet Archive’s “National Emergency Library”, an initiative developed in response to COVID-19 to help educators access materials in the face of brick-and-mortar closures.

But while that case reveals a key tension between intellectual property rights and open access to educational resources, the OSTP’s latest memo on scientific research is based on a far simpler ethos: that what is created for public use, and federally funded for that end, should be accessible to average citizens. Barring any further industry loopholes, it will be—by January 1, 2026.

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GLOBAL HUMANIST SHOPTALK M L Clark is a Canadian writer by birth, now based in Medellín, Colombia, who publishes speculative fiction and humanist essays with a focus on imagining a more just world.