Written by Miyako Rogers, Science Writer
On the 25 August, 2022, The White House Office of Science and Technology publicly declared that all taxpayer-supported research should be made freely available without delay.
This unprecedented and bold push to make research open-access and publicly available is something we should all be celebrating. As President Biden puts it “The taxpayers fund $5 billion a year in cancer research every year, but once it’s published, nearly all of that taxpayer-funded research sits behind walls. Tell me how this is moving the process along more rapidly.”
And he’s right – institutions and companies pay huge fees to ensure access to certain journals, and individuals sometimes have to pay hundreds just to access one paper. In 2018, a review estimated that only 28% of all scholarly publications are open access. This means the vast majority of academic knowledge remains inaccessible to many, and as Dr. Alondra Nelson, Head of the Office of Science and Technology emphasises “When research is widely available to other researchers and the public, it can save lives, provide policymakers with the tools to make critical decisions, and drive more equitable outcomes across every sector of society.”.
Central to the scientific ethos is advancing knowledge – but so much of that knowledge is hidden behind paywalls, only accessible to a select few. Knowledge should be equitable, not elitist, especially when tax-payers are footing the bill. As Dr. Alondra Nelson notes, “The American people fund tens of billions of dollars of cutting-edge research annually. There should be no delay or barrier between the American public and the returns on their investments in research.”
There has been a gradual and ongoing push over the past decade to make more research open-access. Whilst review articles, open-letters, and even data-driven research papers have outlined and emphasized the advantages and need for more research to be open-access, the journals hold all the playing cards, and not much has changed. Hopefully this new policy by the White House will kickstart a major change in the way we publish and access new scientific developments, not just in America, but globally.
However, it’s worth noting that this policy only applies to about 7-9% of all published papers: To put that into context, that’s around 195,000-263,000 articles out of the 2.9 million papers published worldwide. Moreover, it appears that open-access will only be granted to American citizens. Scientific research is an exceptionally internationally collaborative field, and many NIH-funded projects have contributions from researchers all over the world. Furthermore, we should note that whilst the White House has used language suggesting this change be implemented “without delay”, journals have until 2025 to adapt to the new policy. However, this is still a huge step in the right direction – and we hope other institutions and governments will follow suit.