Government research to be made public under new directive

A new White House directive on making scientific findings available responds to We the People petition, builds on NIH dissemination policies.

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A new White House directive on making scientific findings available responds to We the People petition, builds on NIH dissemination policies. (Stock image)

A new White House directive orders major government agencies to make taxpayer-funded research freely available to the public within 12 months after publication.

The directive, authored by Office of Science and Technology Policy Director John Holdren, orders agencies that spend more than $100 million on research and development to develop formal plans and standards by which to release research papers and data within a year’s time.

Holdren also penned an official response to a "We The People" online petition launched last year that requested free online access to journal articles arising from taxpayer-funded research, in which Holdren pointed out the "great success" of the public access policy adopted five years ago by the National Institutes of Health to disseminate research in biomedical science.

"The Administration is committed to ensuring that, to the greatest extent and with the fewest constraints possible... the direct results of federally-funded scientific research are made available to and useful for the public, industry, and the scientific community," the directive states.

Agencies affected by the memorandum include NASA and the Departments of Defense, Health and Human Services, Energy, Agriculture, Commerce, and Homeland Security – each of which spend around $1 billion or more – as well as several other agencies that eclipse the $100 million marker.

Interagency collaboration to achieve plans for the timely release of scientific publications and digital scientific data is expected, and plans will have to meet a series of objectives developed with input from the National Science and Technology Council and public consultation. Draft policies are due to OSTP by August, must contain measurable metrics, and must identify resources within existing agency budgets to implement the plan.

Standards include:

• A strategy for leveraging existing archives, where appropriate, and fostering public-private partnerships with scientific journals relevant to the agency’s research;

• A strategy for improving the public’s ability to locate and access digital data resulting from federally funded scientific research

• An approach for optimizing search, archival, and dissemination features that encourages innovation in accessibility and interoperability, while ensuring long-term stewardship of the results of federally funded research.

Exactly how agencies will comply with the directive remains unclear, but NIH public access program manager Neil Thakur said his agency is standing by to collaborate with other agencies.

"We are ready to support other federal agencies in the development of their public access policies," said Thakur, who added that collaboration with NIH may save agencies from "starting from scratch." Such collaboration might make it easier for research awardees to get their papers published on a singular database, too.

NIH made public access to information a requirement in 2008, three years after the agency came up with a voluntary policy for its researchers on the matter. NIH had to make a few changes to accommodate their public access policies, but Thakur, who arrived at NIH in 2005, said the agency was able to keep costs low by leveraging existing resources, like its online archive or journal articles called PubMed Central.

NIH now posts research papers online to PubMed Central, a free digital database developed more than ten years ago by the National Library of Medicine that contains about 2.6 million papers, though most are not NIH-supported.

"For us, it hasn’t been very expensive," Thakur said. "It was challenging in that we have a lot of authors who need to do things differently to comply with policy, but they have been doing that and lots of publishers have stepped forward. We certainly appreciate what OSTP is doing, and think it’s helpful to science at the economy to make peer-reviewed publications more accessible."

A big step for the Open Access movement

Outside the public sector, the White House directive was viewed favorably by those in the "open access" movement – those who argue against a pay wall standing between taxpayers and the work they’ve already funded. Their efforts have picked up steam and generated attention recently, with the White House petition and the suicide of open data activist Aaron Swartz in January putting transparency in the spotlight. Some members of Congress have responded, too, introducing the Fair Access to Science and Technology Research Act (FASTR) bill that proposes many similar policies.

Cameron Neylon, Advocacy Director for the Public Library of Science, a nonprofit publisher and advocacy organization that promotes immediate access to research, said the directive is "definitely a step in the right direction," though he cautioned that the directive alone is not enough.

"Our view is research should be free to read immediately on publication and free to review for any purpose, but we are still some distance away from that." Neylon said.

Yet Neylon said "governments all over the world" are beginning to put in place policies, legislation and systems designed to make the research they fund and collect more accessible, and he thinks the combination of a White House directive and pending congressional legislation has huge potential to rewrite how federally-funded research is done.

"Those two (the legislation and directive) are complimentary to each other," Neylon said. "There is a strong public interest in the issue at the moment, and we are always happy to see government taking the right steps."

Neylon said he thought it would make sense if agencies collaborated with NIH, since the "infrastructure is already there to support agencies," though he said each agency would have to use the flexibility they have to "think about what is best for their communities."

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