To the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy and the Subcommittee on Open Science,
We wholeheartedly applaud your recent memorandum ensuring free, immediate and equitable access to federally funded scholarship. Your leadership on this issue makes a brighter future possible, but there are significant risks if care is not taken in the implementation. Specifically, if the implementation of this policy reinforces the move towards expensive article processing charges (APCs) and “transformative agreements” (TAs) where institutions pay those charges directly, innovation will be hampered by restricting research dissemination to only individuals or institutions with large or dedicated publishing budgets. The risk is that this memorandum will improve equitable access at the cost of making participation in research less equitable, which could be devastating to research progress.
The dominance of the USA in research means that its policies have the potential to set the standard for the world. If agencies implement this memorandum by paying APCs for federally funded research, many journals will be forced by financial considerations to switch to an APC-only model. This will exclude all scholars who are not federally funded, in the USA and worldwide, undermining the ambition of the memo for the USA to be a “critical leader and partner on issues of open science around the world”. Our current system of publishing requires substantial financing either to access or to participate in research, and so without fundamental changes it cannot give us a future in which both of these activities are equitable. Private and non-profit organizations can play an important role, competing in creating services that go beyond the essential processes of making the content available and managing peer review. However, these essential services are a core part of what defines scholarship, and access to these must be equitable.
The USA has the power to fundamentally change the landscape of scholarly publishing and make both access and participation equitable. It can do this in the short term by requiring that research is only published in venues where the ability to pay (an APC or TA) is not required for making the results immediately available. There is no doubt that this would disrupt the publishing industry, but there are successful journals that run on this model, and it would force publishers to compete on added value rather than by artificially limiting the ability to access and meaningfully participate in scholarship. To ensure innovation for the long term, the USA can provide an infrastructure that will lay the foundations for a flourishing ecosystem of new approaches to scholarly publishing. An open publishing infrastructure which allows third parties to re-use and build on scholarly content and data will boost progress in exactly the same way that public infrastructure boosts the economy.
Beyond equitable access, the implementation of these recommendations will accelerate progress by dramatically improving the way we do research. Currently, significant research time and federal funding is diverted to the antiquated and inefficient publishing infrastructure. Researchers are obliged to use this outdated infrastructure because of the perceived necessity to publish in certain journals for career advancement, the lack of innovation in these journals, and the fact that most data remains inaccessible in practice. An open, flexible infrastructure would lead to a wealth of new and innovative approaches that would not only reduce inefficiency, but hugely widen the scope of what is possible.
In summary, we are excited by the possibilities opened up for scholarship by this memorandum. We urge you to promote approaches that maximally encourage participation and innovation by making all data easily and conveniently accessible with a unified approach that is open to all. Investing now in equitable, open infrastructure could allow America to lead the world into a new golden age for research.
This open letter was written by a number of authors and coordinated by Neuromatch.
Note that this letter has had a few minor revisions that do not change the sense but make it clearer and more inclusive. In the interests of transparency, this letter has been openly stored on GitHub and the full edit history can be viewed. Each signature in the full list has a timestamp that can be used to verify the precise version of the letter that was signed.