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US Will Make Public-Funded Research Free To Read. Where Does India Stand?

US Will Make Public-Funded Research Free To Read. Where Does India Stand?

Representative image. Photo: Loughborough University Library/Flickr CC BY 2.0

  • In a landmark decision, the US announced last week that all papers that describe taxpayer-supported research should be made freely accessible to the public.
  • In India too, there has been a long discussion on open access to public-funded research. Several agencies already provide free access to papers funded by them,
  • The government’s draft Science, Technology and Innovation policy 2020 proposed a similar approach. It also has a ‘One Nation, One Subscription’ plan.

New Delhi: In a landmark decision that will expand open access to scientific research, the US announced last week that all papers that describe taxpayer-supported research should be made freely accessible to the public by the end of 2025.

Though researchers have long argued for open access to publicly funded research, change has been slow because academic publishing is “dominated by a small number of highly profitable and powerful publishers”. Because these journals keep papers behind a paywall, the research is all but inaccessible to anyone who is not in a university or other research centres.

In a memorandum to federal departments and agencies, the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP) updated US policy guidance to make the results of taxpayer-supported research “immediately available to the American public at no cost”. The new policy guidance expands a previous one signed by then-president Barack Obama in 2013, which mandated that the largest funding agencies should allow the public to access their research at free of cost – but allowed for an optional 12-month delay or embargo before they are available. US President Joe Biden has done away with the embargo.

“All agencies will fully implement updated policies, including ending the optional 12-month embargo, no later than December 31, 2025,” OSTP said in a press release. It added that the new policy will yield significant benefits on a number of key priorities for the American people, from environmental justice to cancer breakthroughs, and from game-changing clean energy technologies to protecting civil liberties in an automated world.

According to the magazine Science, many commercial journal publishers and nonprofit scientific societies have argued for the 12-month embargo to remain because “it is critical to protecting subscription revenues that cover editing and production costs and fund society activities”. The critics meanwhile say that paywalls “obstruct the free flow of information, have enabled price gouging by some publishers, and force US taxpayers to ‘pay twice’—once to fund the research and again to see the results”.

OSTP acting director Alondra Nelson told Science that the policy will not mandate journals to follow a particular business model for publishing. Researchers will not have to publish only in open-access journals – many of which charge a fee to accept the paper –  and can publish in paywalled journals if they deposit “the almost-final, peer-reviewed, and accepted version” into a public depository.

“Journals will still be able to keep their final, published version of a paper behind a paywall,” Science reported. However, the magazine also added that some researchers feel only the final published version is adequate for scholarly purposes as the almost-final version “might lack final editing, typesetting, and formatted data tables”.

The new US policy will also have ramifications for researchers beyond American borders. The papers will be accessible to people everywhere, not just US citizens. That means that researchers could soon access a substantial share of academic literature at no cost. An OSTP estimate in 2020 said that US federal research funds produced 195,000 to 263,000 published articles. This, according to Science, represented 7-9% of the 2.9 million papers published worldwide that year.

The policy could also include US national endowments for the arts and humanities. Federal agencies are also given leeway to decide if the policy should cover other taxpayer-supported materials, such as book chapters and peer-reviewed conference proceedings.

Nelson also told Science that the OSTP is aware that the policy could encourage researchers to publish in pay-to-publish journals. If this becomes a widespread practice, it would make publishing more difficult for authors with modest or no grant funding – especially in developing countries. It wants “to ensure that public access policies are accompanied by support for more vulnerable members of the research ecosystem”.

Representative Image of a library of Academic Journals. Photo : Selena/Flickr, CC BY 2.0.

What does this mean for India?

In India too, there has been a discussion about granting open access to public-funded research. Last year, India’s fifth (draft) Science, Technology and Innovation (STI) Policy suggested that research produced in Indian publicly funded institutions should be made freely accessible to everyone immediately after publication.

It also proposed a ‘One Nation, One Subscription’ plan, under which the government will negotiate with journal publishers to enable access for everyone. This plan could make access to scientific journals easier, but as Anubha Sinha wrote in an article for The Wire Science, the outcome of similar subscription plans in Uruguay and Egypt was mixed. It “will depend largely on how negotiations with publishers materialise”.

Also Read | Research Publishing: Is ‘One Nation, One Subscription’ Pragmatic Reform for India?

The STI policy prefers a green open access approach – arguing that taxpayers should not pay twice – and mandates researchers to place their publications and data in online repositories. There will also be no restrictions on how the output is used.

Several research and funding agencies in India – such as the Departments of Science & Technology and Biotechnology; the Indian Council of Agricultural Research; and the Wellcome Trust – have already adopted green OA. The STI policy obligating all funding agencies to do so will streamline the process.

In India, the impact of a green open access policy will be bigger than in the US. The Government of India funds over 50% of all scientific research in the country.

K. VijayRaghavan, the principal scientific adviser to the Government of India, had in October 2019 said that India will devise a national policy to lower the costs of scientific publishing and improve public access. This, he said, would not just solve the ‘access to knowledge’ problem but also the problem of cost. According to him, India spends about Rs 1,500 crore annuals in subscription fees to journals. If the ‘One Nation, One Subscription’ plan is implemented, the government may be able to hammer out a better deal.

The US’s new policy, combined with the Plan S coalition efforts in Europe, should only add momentum to India’s open access movement.

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