Academic Publishers, and a U.S. Senator, Resist Possible Policy Change on Open Access

Dec 18, 2019

On Wednesday, academic publishers ratcheted up their efforts to prevent a possible executive order mandating that journal articles on scientific research conducted with federal funds be made immediately free for public access.

More than 125 organizations, including the Association of American Publishers, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and the New England Journal of Medicine, signed a letter addressed to President Trump expressing “deep concern” about the idea, which they argue could “jeopardize the intellectual property of American organizations engaged in the creation of high-quality peer-reviewed journals and research articles.”

The letter emphasizes the role U.S. science research plays in serving the country’s economic interests, since copyrighted journal articles are “licensed to users in hundreds of foreign countries, supporting billions of dollars in U.S. exports and an extensive network of American businesses and jobs.”

The strong reaction comes ahead of any publicly released information from the White House. On Wednesday, the communications director for the U.S. Office of Science and Technology Policy told EdSurge that “there are still many moving pieces” and that "we do not comment on internal deliberative processes that may or may not be happening."

That hasn’t stopped scientific societies and academic membership associations from fretting, though.

“As we understand it, there is a draft circulating but nothing firm in terms of issuance from the Administration,” Glenn Ruskin, vice president of external affairs and communications for the American Chemical Society, told EdSurge in an email. The organization also signed onto a separate, related letter from scientific societies addressed to the president. “We are hoping that the letter is sent in advance of any such embargo revision being issued, and that the Administration will accept the science community’s offer to work with them collaboratively and transparently to discuss any proposed changes to the current OSTP guidance.”

These groups are not the only ones worried. Last week, Senator Thom Tillis (R-NC), chairman of the Senate Judiciary Intellectual Property Subcommittee, sent his own letter to the U.S Department of Commerce and the White House expressing concern about a possible executive order that “would mandate that scientific journal articles be made available immediately.”

Such a policy change “could amount to significant government interference in an otherwise well-functioning private marketplace that gives doctors, scientific researchers and others options about how they want to publish these important contributions to science,” Tillis wrote.

Other organizations have thrown their support behind the possible executive order, however, including the Scholarly Publishing and Academic Resources Coalition of more than 200 academic and research libraries.

Mandating immediate open access to publicly funded research would “deliver important benefits to all by improving scientific productivity, generating new uses and applications for research, empowering startup ventures and businesses, and giving patients and their families hope of finding cures to rare and currently untreatable diseases,” said executive director Heather Joseph in a statement on Thursday.

Open Access Policies

This possible policy change wouldn’t mark the first occasion that the White House has asserted authority over scientific publishing.

In 2013, the U.S. Office of Science and Technology Policy helped create a new rule that requires the results of federally funded science research be made available to the public within 12 months of publication. Prior to that period, academic journals are generally able to claim exclusive rights to the findings they publish, a system that supports their subscription business models.

The Association of American Publishers expressed support for the 2013 measure at the time, calling it “a reasonable, balanced resolution of issues around public access to research funded by federal agencies."

In one of the letters published Wednesday, the organization and its more than 125 collaborators argued that imposing a swifter timeline for free distribution “would make it very difficult for most American publishers to invest in publishing these articles.”

The second letter, from about 60 scientific societies, invites the Trump administration to work with publishers and other interested parties on any new policy proposals.


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