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A decadeslong battle over how best to provide public access to the fruits of research funded by the U.S. government has taken a major turn.
President Joe Biden’s administration announced yesterday that, by the end of 2025, federal agencies must make papers that describe taxpayer-funded work freely available to the public as soon as the final peer-reviewed manuscript is published. Data underlying those publications must also be made freely available “without delay.”
Many details of the new policy, including exactly how the government will fund immediate public access, remain to be decided. But it significantly reshapes and expands existing—and fiercely contested—U.S. access rules that have been in place since 2013. Most notably, the White House has substantially weakened, but not formally eliminated, the ability of journals to keep final versions of federally funded papers behind a subscription paywall for up to 1 year.
Many commercial publishers and nonprofit scientific societies have long fought to maintain that 1-year embargo, saying it is critical to protecting subscription revenues that cover editing and production costs and fund society activities. But critics of paywalls argue that they obstruct the free flow of information, have enabled price gouging by some publishers, and force U.S. taxpayers to “pay twice”—once to fund the research and again to see the results. Since the late 1990s, the critics have lobbied Congress and the White House to require free and immediate “open access” to government-funded research.
The Biden administration has heeded those pleas, although the new policy does not expressly embrace the term open access—it uses the words “public access.” It is “de facto an open-access mandate,” says Stefano Bertuzzi, CEO of the American Society for Microbiology (ASM), which publishes 16 journals. And many open-access advocates are applauding it.
“This is an enormous leap forward,” says Heather Joseph, executive director of the Scholarly Publishing and Academic Resources Coalition, one of the oldest open-access advocacy groups in the United States. “Getting rid of that embargo is huge.”
The embargo and related policies “were pure sellouts of the public interest,” tweeted molecular biologist Michael Eisen of the University of California, Berkeley, a prominent critic of U.S. access policies and co-founder of the PLOS journals, which have helped pioneer an open-access business model in which authors pay a fee to make their papers immediately free to all. “The best thing I can say about this new policy is that publishers will hate it.”
Many publishers say they support a transition to immediate public access but criticized the new U.S. policy. “We would have preferred to chart our own course to open access without a government mandate,” Bertuzzi says. Six of ASM’s journals are already fully open access, with the rest to follow by 2027.
The Association of American Publishers, a leading trade group, complained in a statement that the policy arrived “without formal, meaningful consultation or public input … on a decision that will have sweeping ramifications, including serious economic impact.” (White House officials say they met with large and small publishers over the past year to discuss the change.)
Others took a wait-and-see approach. Sudip Parikh, CEO of AAAS, which publishes the Science family of journals, says “it is too soon to tell if this guidance will impact our journals.” (AAAS publishes a fully open-access journal, Science Advances, and in 2021 its paywalled Science journals began to allow authors to deposit the peer-reviewed, almost-final version of manuscripts in institutional repositories on publication.)
The impact of the new requirement could vary depending on which of the more than 20 U.S. funding agencies underwrite the author’s research. Each agency must finalize its policy by the end of 2024 and implement it by the end of 2025.
The policy is not intended to mandate any particular business model for publishing, said Alondra Nelson, acting director of the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP), in an interview with ScienceInsider. For example, it will not require federally funded researchers to publish only in pay-to-publish open-access journals. Researchers who publish in subscription journals might be able to satisfy the rule by depositing the almost-final, peer-reviewed, and accepted version into a public depository or other agency-approved outlet. Journals will still be able to keep their final, published version of a paper behind a paywall. (But some researchers say only the final published version is adequate for scholarly purposes. The not-quite-final, “author-accepted” versions might lack final editing, typesetting, and formatted data tables.)
Nelson says OSTP is acutely aware of concerns about who will pay the costs associated with the new policy, especially if publishing in a pay-to-publish journal becomes a widespread practice. Some fear the U.S. policy—combined with similar policies adopted in Europe and elsewhere—could accelerate the rise of such journals, ultimately making publishing more difficult for authors with modest or no grant funding, especially ones who work in underresourced institutions and in developing countries.
OSTP says in a blog post it wants “to ensure that public access policies are accompanied by support for more vulnerable members of the research ecosystem.” Agencies could, for example, allow researchers to use grant funds to cover open-access publishing costs—as some do already—or could fund the expansion of public repositories, Nelson says. “We’re not naïve about the challenges we face,” she says. “Implementation on any new policy is key.”
The new policy reflects the profound changes that have rocked academic publishing since the U.S. public access debate began in earnest more than 25 years ago. Then, subscription-based print journals were the primary means of disseminating research results, and publishers fiercely resisted any policy change that threatened an often highly profitable business model. But pressure from university libraries tired of paying rising subscription fees, and patient groups angry about having to pay to read taxpayer-funded biomedical studies, helped catalyze serious discussion of policy change. At the same time, the rise of the internet fueled publishing experiments, such as open-access journals and the posting of freely accessible “preprints” that have not been peer reviewed.
In Washington, D.C., these shifts prompted both Republicans and Democrats to urge the federal government to revise its access policies. In 2013, then-President Barack Obama attempted to strike a compromise—via the 1-year embargo rule—between publishers and open-access advocates.
But many—including Biden, then Obama’s vice president—were not happy with that deal. In a 2016 speech, for example, Biden noted, “The taxpayers fund $5 billion a year in cancer research, but once it’s published, nearly all of that sits behind [pay]walls. Tell me how this is moving the [scientific] process along more rapidly.”
The administration of former President Donald Trump also considered requiring immediate public access. And several developments in recent years increased the pressure for a revamp. In 2019, the U.S. National Cancer Institute’s “Cancer Moonshot” research program, which Biden helped create under Obama, required grantees to make papers developed with its funding free to read. In 2018, a group of European science funders called Coalition S unveiled a similar policy, which takes full effect in January 2025. (Coalition S imposes an additional requirement that publishers give up copyright; the existing and new U.S. policies do not.) And in 2020, publishers agreed to make all papers relevant to COVID-19 open access, at least temporarily.
Now, the new U.S. rules will apply to a substantial share of the world’s academic literature—and hundreds of thousands of new scholarly papers will become freely available to all with no delay. In 2020, OSTP estimates federal research funds produced 195,000 to 263,000 published articles, or some 7% to 9% of the 2.9 million papers published worldwide that year. And because the policy now applies to any federal agency that funds research—and not just those that spend $100 million or more annually—the free material could also include work funded by the national endowments for the arts and humanities. OSTP says agencies also could decide that the rule covers other materials, such as book chapters and conference proceedings, that are peer reviewed.
How the change will ultimately affect the finances of specific journals, publishers, and researchers is hard to predict, analysts say. In some journals, for example, just a small fraction of papers might be the product of U.S. funding. And university libraries might still be willing to pay subscription fees, even if their faculty can read the same papers elsewhere for free, if publishers offer a better interface, search functions, or other services.
Bertuzzi, however, says the new policy is likely to have a global impact that will be hard to ignore, because “the U.S. government is the 800-pound gorilla in the room.”