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Budget law forces federal agencies to give free access to research reports

Some federal agencies will have to make available to the public, free of charge, reports of publicly-funded research under a provision of the budget bill signed last week by President Barack Obama.

The statutory language in question does not apply to all federal agencies, though. Its reach is limited to the Departments of Education, Health and Human Services, and Labor, as well as the Centers for Disease Control and an array of smaller agencies.

“This is an important step toward making federally funded scientific research available for everyone to use online at no cost,” Heather Joseph, executive director of the Scholarly Publishing and Academic Resources Coalition, said in a statement.

Jessica McGilvray, the assistant director of government relations for the American Library Association, pointed out that a significant benefit of the provision in the annual measure that funds the U.S. government is the degree to which it will lower the costs libraries must incur to provide access to peer-reviewed papers in the social and natural sciences.

“It’s very expensive and for some libraries, prohibitively so,” she said. “That’s one of the reasons the American Library Association is invested in assuring that as much information is made available as possible, especially when taxpayers have already paid for it.”

The provision in the Fiscal Year 2014 Consolidated Appropriations Act would affect about $31 billion of the approximately $60 billion spent by the United States government activities each year.

The idea of forcing federal agencies to provide no-cost access to papers discussing the results of taxpayer-financed research has gained momentum, both in Congress and elsewhere, during the past year.

In February 2013 the Obama administration directed the heads of all federal agencies and cabinet departments that spend at least $100 million each year on research and development activities to “develop a plan to support increased public access to the results of research funded by the Federal Government.”

The directive, which came in a memorandum signed by President Obama’s principal science advisor, John Holdren, set an August deadline for affected bureaucracies to submit their plan to the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy.

Most agencies did not meet that deadline.

“They are a bit behind,” Joanne P. Carney, the director of government relations for the American Association for the Advancement of Science, said. “This legislation, it says that Congress wants agencies to take this seriously.”

The appropriations law also includes language requiring OSTP to provide Congress with a report that details the progress of executive branch departments and agencies in complying with President Obama’s open access policy.

Separately from the White House-directed effort to push federal agencies into assuring free access to reports relating to publicly financed research, the National Institutes of Health has implemented its own public access policy.

That policy requires cooperating researchers to submit papers to an online repository called PubMed Central immediately upon being notified that a paper has been accepted for publication.

PubMed Central, in turn, must make the papers available to the public at no charge within 12 months.

Congress is also considering separate legislation that would impose an open access requirement on all unclassified research conducted by federal agencies that meet the $100 million annual threshold set forth in the Holdren memorandum.

The proposed Fair Access to Sciences and Technology Research Act permits a six-month delay before free access is required.

Carney said that the six month requirement could be problematic for some publishers.

“Six months, I think could be of concern for some publications and certain business models because not everyone publishes on a weekly basis,” she said.

Carney explained that some publishers print journals on a schedule that is not compatible with such a short deadline for open access by the public.

She also said that she thinks Congress is likely to observe the implementation of the White House open access directive before moving to enact the FASTR legislation.

“Given the fact that you have the language I this omnibus, and you have OSTP working with agencies, I think everyone will see what comes out of the federal agencies and see how implementation, the nuts and bolts of this, reverberates in the community before pushing for any changes,” she said.

The ALA, by contrast, sees a different imperative in the debate over open access legislation – namely, that a provision in an annual funding law is not permanent.

“It doesn’t mean that we don’t need FASTR,” McGilvray said. “That bill could be for just one year, whereas FASTR would be law indefinitely.”

FASTR has not received a committee hearing in either chamber of Congress, despite having been introduced nearly one year ago.

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