The United States Open Access Mandate

The United States Open Access Mandate – what does it mean for us?

Open Scholarship Librarian Hardy Schwamm comments on the recent US announcement of changes of Open Access policies of government-funded research.
Announcement of new US policy on Twitter
What happened?

On 25 August 2022, the US White House announced an updated policy guidance on Open Access that will substantially expand public access to science. It requires that all US government-funded research to be made freely available to read immediately after publication. This means no embargoes would be acceptable. Federal research bodies need to implement the new policy by the end of 2025.

What are the policy changes?

Researchers in the US who publish papers based on federal funds currently have two options. They can either make an article Open Access on publication by paying an Article Processing Charge (APC) to the publisher (Gold Open Access). Or they can publish it in a subscription-based journal but then put the accepted paper in a publicly available repository following an embargo, typically one-year long.

The new mandate effectively ends the 12-month embargo period, allowing researchers, from 2025, to put their paper in an open repository as soon as it is published in a journal. The White House Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP) who issued the guidance stressed that research publications must be “publicly accessible by default in agency-designated repositories without any embargo or delay after publication”.

Is this a big deal?

It appears so. Nature called it a “momentous shift from current policies”. US taxpayers spend more than $80 billion annually to fund basic and applied research which makes the country the world’s biggest research funder. Voices of support came from organisations like SPARC who called it a “historic step”. Open Access publisher PLOS was “thrilled” by the news. Further support came from Brian Nosek, Executive Director of the Open Science Framework.

Brian Nosek, Director of the Open Science Framework on Twitter


The policy guidance sounds familiar to us as it is similar to Plan S, the initiative for Open Access research publishing launched in 2018 by cOAlition S. SFI, UKRI, Horizon and others are among the organisations endorsing Plan S. Johan Rooryck, Executive Director of cOAlition S, called the US policy “a game changer for scholarly publishing”.

This is a US policy. Why should we care?

We can expect the US policy to act as a catalyst for more policy changes globally. As mentioned above, the US is the biggest research funder world-wide and their policies matter because of the scale of US research output. The new policy broadly aligns the US with Plan S driven policies so that researchers collaborating with US colleagues should find a more coherent policy environment.

The current momentum of Open Access might also encourage countries like Australia to develop similar policies. Even China might be tempted to develop a comparable policy (although commentator Tao Tao in Scholarly Kitchen thinks this is unlikely).

What will change and is this really good news?

The biggest change arguably will be on the publishing industry although many questions are still open. Will the US policy mean that we finally move away from a subscription based model that generated vast profits for big commercial publishers to a more sustainable and equitable system?  This is a big question!

Another question is what happens when publishers sell less subscriptions because most content from the US, Europe and other countries with strong Open Access policies will be available to access with no cost? The Association of American Publishers predicts grimly that the new US policy “will have sweeping ramifications, including serious economic impact” as their established business model of selling subscriptions erodes. 

How the change is going to happen in the short term is still uncertain, as are the long term consequences. We know that the current subscription model locks away taxpayer funded research outputs behind a paywall, but an APC based publishing model would prevent authors without access to funds from publishing. Or as Niamh Tumelty from Cambridge University Library commented: There is a “serious risk that [we] just move from a broken system with built-in inequities around access to information to a new broken system with built-in inequities around whose voices can be heard.”

What will be the long-term consequences be?

The crucial question seems to be how this new policy will be implemented. Will Gold Open Access be the preferred route towards Open Access and if yes, how will this be paid for? How do we make sure that the “broken system” of vast publisher profits will not just be shifted from subscriptions to Gold Open Access fees (APCs)? Virginia Barbour warns rightly in the Conversation: “It will be important that this policy doesn’t lead to a financial bonanza for these already very profitable companies – nor a consolidation of their power.”

Sam Moore, Scholarly Communication Specialist from Cambridge University Libraries, argues that “throwing money at market-based solutions” will only consolidate the power of large commercial publishers. What we have learned in the last few years by negotiating and implementing Open Access agreements with (mostly) big publishers is that we need a more bibliodiverse publishing system that serves the needs of different scholarly communities.

The consulting firm Clarke & Esposito concluded in a recent post: “The era of the journal subscription may be nearing its end”. They predict a gradual decline of subscription journals over time, but the time window depends on the implementation of the guidance. Basically, the more subscription journals flip to Open Access (or go out of business) the more funding needs to be available to authors to pay for APCs, as their choice of journals will be more and more tilted towards fully Open Access titles. Another option would be to develop alternative APC-free Open Access options, and libraries will be a crucial partner in this effort.

These are interesting times for us working in academic libraries! The change in US policy feels like a major step towards making research outputs Open Access by default, even if there a mixed feelings about how the change will be managed.  

But concerns about policies should not distract us from the bigger picture. New polling data shows that US voters are overwhelmingly in favour of Open Access as a principle, across political divides. 83 percent agree that federally funded research should be freely available for taxpayers to read and access. This includes 86 percent of Democrats, 80 percent of Independents, and 82 percent of Republicans. Open Access is a popular idea and we are getting slowly closer to a world where Open Access is the default publishing option.

Open Access poll by Data for Progress

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