Report Offers Consensus Recommendations on Expanding Public Access to Scholarly Articles

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Publication date: 
20 January 2010

“I believe these recommendations strike a good balance by allowing public access to the results of research paid for with federal funds, while preserving the high quality and editorial integrity of scholarly publishing so critical to the scientists and seasoned science writers on whose expertise we all depend."- House Science and Technology Committee Chairman Bart Gordon (D-TN) January 13, 2010

A much anticipated report was released on January 12 recommending a way forward for increasing free public access to research articles published in peer-reviewed journals while preserving “the essential functions of the scholarly publishing enterprise.”  In addition to offering recommendations regarding public access, the 25-page report provides guidance on interoperability, voluntary collaborations, and digital preservation of journal articles.

Last June, the House Science and Technology Committee, in coordination with the Office of Science and Technology Policy, convened a Roundtable forum of key stakeholders: publishers of scientific journals (including the American Institute of Physics), researchers, and individuals from academic administration and academic libraries.  At the outset, the House Science and Technology Committee’s Proposal described the Roundtable’s objectives as follows:

“Over the past several years, open access advocates have proposed free and mandatory access to published scientific journal articles resulting from research funded by the federal government. In response, publishers of peer-reviewed scientific literature have argued that free, mandatory access to their articles undermines the credibility and sustainability of their enterprises with unintended consequences for scientific advancement. The debate has not progressed much in the last few years, but all agree that we must get beyond business as usual.

“The House Science and Technology Committee, which has oversight of the federal civilian R&D enterprise, has a strong interest in this issue. The Committee seeks to convene a Roundtable of the key stakeholders to explore and develop an appropriate consensus regarding access to and preservation of federally funded research information that addresses the needs of all interested parties.”

The Roundtable presented its report to the House Science and Technology Committee and the Office of Science and Technology Policy declaring “We were asked to work together in a search for common ground and to develop recommendations that would materially advance public access to the journal articles arising from research funded by agencies of the United States government.  We believe we have accomplished our mission.”

The “Report and Recommendations from the Scholarly Publishing Roundtable,” endorsed by all but two of the participants, establishes five “shared principles” and then offers a set of recommendations, of which the core recommendation is:

“Each federal research funding agency should expeditiously but carefully develop and implement an explicit public access policy that brings about free public access to the results of the research that it funds as soon as possible after those results have been published in a peer-reviewed journal.”

To implement this core recommendation, the Roundtable provided the following eight recommendations, described as “key properties of a public access policy,” as listed and described in the Executive Summary:

"1.  Agencies should work in full and open consultation with all stakeholders, as well as with OSTP, to develop their public access policies.

2.  Agencies should establish specific embargo periods between publication and public access. An embargo period of between zero (for open access journals) and twelve months currently reflects such a balance for many science disciplines. For other fields a longer embargo period may be necessary.

3.  Policies should be guided by the need to foster interoperability. OSTP should work with agencies to facilitate collaboration among them and between agencies and stakeholders to develop robust standards for the structure of full text and metadata, navigation tools, and other applications to achieve interoperability across the literature, taking international standards into account. OSTP should work with agencies that have cyberinfrastructure programs to develop a multiagency program supporting research and development to expand interoperability capability.

4.  Every effort should be made to have the version of record (VoR) as the version to which free access is provided. If the VoR is not included in a public access database, the article version or reference that is included should contain links back to the VoR on the publisher’s site.

5.  Government agencies should extend the reach of their public access policies through voluntary collaborations with nongovernmental stakeholders. To achieve the full potential of publicly accessible, interoperable databases, the multiagency public access program recommended here should be extended through voluntary collaborations with publishers, universities, and other entities husbanding the results of research, within and beyond the U.S.

6.  Policies should foster innovation in the research and educational use of scholarly publications.

7.  Government public access policies should address the need to resolve the challenges of long-term digital preservation.

8.  OSTP should establish a public access advisory committee. To provide a mechanism for periodic assessment of the rapidly changing scholarly publishing landscape, and to provide a forum for discussion of adjustments to agency public access policies in the context of that changing landscape, OSTP should establish an advisory committee to provide a periodic, independent evaluation of agencies’ public access policies and practices.”

The report, which is available on the House Science and Technology Committee's website, along with other relevant materials, is seen by the Roundtable participants as the foundation for future collaborations in the implementation of the core and secondary recommendations.   The Roundtable’s approach to these deliberations is expressed toward the end of this report, as follows:

“These recommendations seek to balance the need for and potential of increased access to scholarly publishing with the need to preserve the essential functions of the scholarly publishing enterprise. In pursuit of a broad, workable consensus, the recommendations call for concessions on the part of stakeholders, but we believe that these proposals sustain the necessary conditions supporting scholarship, quality control, and editorial excellence while specifying concrete steps to ensure the expansion of public access and to improve the usefulness of the literature to researchers. What we recommend here will preserve a commitment to the five principles enunciated earlier and will build a truly collaborative environment for future improvements and innovations. The negative energy that now defines debates over accessibility can and should be turned toward collaboration on ways and means of achieving commonly held goals: not only broad access but better usability, higher confidence in durability and preservation, and a new, transformed system of research publication that incorporates the creativity, the energy, and the imagination of the broadest possible community.

“We urge publishers, librarians, universities, and scholars to consider these recommendations as creating an appropriate collaborative environment and putting an end to the previous decade of wrangling over access issues.  All can then focus efforts on interoperability, reuse, and preservation with the argument that those features of the whole system strongly support public access; on broad, intelligent use of the products of federally funded research; and on future advances in support of both scholarship and public access to its results.”