White House Pushes Journals to Drop Paywalls on Publicly Funded Research

Academic journals will have to provide immediate access to papers that are publicly funded, providing a big win for advocates of open research and ending a policy that had allowed publishers to keep publications behind a paywall for a year, according to a White House directive announced on Thursday.

In laying out the new policy, which is set to be fully in place by the start of 2026, the Office of Science and Technology Policy said that the guidance had the potential to save lives and benefit the public on several key priorities — from cancer breakthroughs to clean-energy technology.

“The American people fund tens of billions of dollars of cutting-edge research annually,” Dr. Alondra Nelson, the head of the office, said in a statement. “There should be no delay or barrier between the American public and the returns on their investments in research.”

Advocates for open-research access, like Greg Tananbaum, the director of the Open Research Funders Group, called the guidance “transformational” for researchers and the broader public alike. He said it built off a 2013 memorandum that was also important in expanding the public’s access to research but fell short in some areas.

The 2013 guidance applied to federal agencies with research and development expenditures of $100 million or more, about 20 of the largest agencies like the National Science Foundation and the National Institutes of Health. The guidance announced on Thursday covers nearly all federal bodies, a major expansion that includes about 400 or more entities, several experts said.

The directive also requires that publications be made available in machine-readable formats to ensure use and reuse, a component that open-access advocates hailed as a game-changer for accessibility.

The latest White House policy makes equity a guiding principle governing access to research, Mr. Tananbaum said, giving colleges with fewer resources the same access to key research that wealthier institutions already enjoy.

“If you’re at a large, R1, research-intensive institution, your academic library probably already pays subscriptions to many of these journals, and therefore you have access,” he said, referring to universities with the highest research activity. “But across America, not many people are actually affiliated with R1 institutions. There are a lot more people who are not. This policy says, hey, they should have access to this information. Their taxes also pay for it.”

The latest policy, he said, “broadens the circle of science. It broadens the conversation.”

Erin McKiernan, a professor at the National Autonomous University of Mexico, said that articles behind a paywall can cost in the range of $25 and $50, which can add up on papers that must cite dozens or hundreds of publications. Dr. McKiernan, who has been working in Mexico and Puerto Rico for the last decade, said she saw first hand the effect that restricted access had on students and colleagues.

She called the White House guidance “part of a larger global momentum toward research sharing.”

A spokeswoman for Springer Nature, among the largest publishers of journals, said in a statement that it was still reviewing the White House memo, but that it counted more than 580 fully open-access journals among its offerings and 2,000 journals, including Nature, that are committed to transforming to open access.

But the statement also contained the first signs of resistance to the White House directive. It said that funding agencies must increase their financial support for the publications in exchange for the research to be free to the public.

Another giant of publishing, Elsevier, said in a statement that it is looking forward “to working with the research community and O.S.T.P. to understand its guidance in more detail.”

Michael Eisen, a University of California, Berkeley, professor and a longtime champion of open access, said that the government’s directive established a principle: that federally funded research must be free to the public. Past attempts to do so have been watered down by inaction, compromises and arguments from the publishing lobby, Dr. Eisen said.

“To me what’s so transformative about this,” Dr. Eisen said, “is that the government is finally laying down the hammer and saying, ‘Look, we’re not waiting anymore. We’ve been talking about this for 30 years.’”

In a statement, the White House said that President Biden had been committed for years to ensuring that the public has access to research. It noted that he said in remarks to the American Association for Cancer Research in 2016, when he was vice president, that people can pay hundreds or thousands of dollars to subscribe to a single journal.

“And here’s the kicker — the journal owns the data for a year,” Mr. Biden said at the time. “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?”

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