The White House Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP) made groundbreaking progress at the end of August when they released a memorandum that updated their policy guidance to specify that data and results coming from taxpayer-supported research must be made immediately available and accessible to the public at no cost. OSTP also issued directions for agencies to update their public access policies and data sharing plans as soon as possible to make publications and the research they host publicly accessible, without an embargo or cost and in machine-readable formats to enable their full use and reuse.
So what does this truly mean for students and researchers?
For many students, OSTP and any of the memorandums that have been released prior to the latest one (which many are calling the Nelson Memo as it was issued by Dr. Alondra Nelson, currently the acting director of the OSTP,) is mostly a foreign subject. What is OSTP and why does it matter? As a Graduate Student myself, I was surprised to learn about the strides taken by the government agency leading up to the release of this memorandum, and the historical struggle to achieve an open science framework that works for the masses and which aims to combat discrimination and structural inequalities inherent in the funding and publishing disadvantages experienced by underserved backgrounds and minorities, as well as early-career researchers.
Like many students at universities, it is easy to take the access we have to library resources, journals, and repositories for granted, especially when they meet our immediate needs. But looking at the world around us and the integration of advancing technology into everyday life and society, it is clear we live in a data driven world, making the availability and access of information a premium. Metadata, or data that describes other data, has become one of the most important concepts in the field of information, as it allows researchers to organize the data from their research or from other projects in a way that is meaningful and often cross-disciplinary in its application. This means that data can have unintended benefits and relevance to other researchers to inform their own work, assuming that they are able to access that data. With the Nelson Memo, access to publicly funded research has been defined and recognized as a right to the public.
Until now there have been clear barriers set in place to promote the interests of academic journals and publishing, and while some of these will still exist even after all of the federal grant-making agencies release their plans for new policy implementation, this advancement toward open access establishes a clear standard moving forward. It sets the United States apart in this respect as global leaders of change in the field of open science. Prior to the Nelson memorandum’s release, Plan S, served as the global standard for open access policy guidance. It mandated that access to publications that have been produced through research grants must be immediately open and fully accessible without being monetized in any form, setting the stage for the standard that OSTP wanted to mirror and build upon.
“cOAlition S”, a consortium of national research agencies and funders from twelve European countries developed around the implementation of Plan S, has come out in support of the newest memorandum and OSTP. More broadly calling the guidance “fully aligned with the open access policies of many forward looking universities and research agencies who have implemented Plan S”, also acknowledging its correlation with the recent UNESCO Recommendation on Open Science, which was adopted by the General Conference of UNESCO at its 41st session last November. Plan S realizes that we have the necessary elements and collective ability to produce digital content as well as public goods that can be shared to help shape the vision of a large connected community that makes up one body, rather than smaller disjointed organs that mirror each other because they cannot see what the other does. All of that is to say, essentially these paywalls of entry to access research act as hurdles that deny the very nature of science as a tool to better understand and help humanity as a whole.
Globally, we saw the power of open science at work in combating the COVID-19 pandemic and bringing the scientific community together, as commercial journals and governments were forced to alter their typical subscription based structure in favor of providing temporary open access to COVID-19 and monkeypox related research data. This allowed for the development of a vaccine and ensured that the common masses had the most credible data driven information to inform their health-based choices and medical practice. Countries across the globe spend billions of dollars on research and experimental development. The United States is no different, with estimates conducted by National Science Foundation (NSF) totalling nearly $667 Billion dollars for the year 2019 alone, continuing to grow in size each of the following years. The expectation would be that the government funding the research would have ownership of the data collected and analyzed, however in the current copyright structure agreement, publicly funded research is often turned over to commercial journals.
One of the largest concerns catalyzed by the newest memo is understanding how the policy changes will affect the viability of the current subscription model when considering the important role journals play in supporting research, such as peer reviews. Publishers were more circumspect about the changes, designating some amount of skepticism towards the question of how the shift to full open access would be funded. To alleviate this issue researchers can now use research grants and funds to support the publication components of the new policies put forth by OSTP. On the other side of the argument, students stand to benefit from open access journals in terms of the widened levels of exposure that their research will receive with entry points to view such articles increasing exponentially. In addition, libraries across the country suffer from the subscription based model with journals and are not in a position to subscribe to every single research journal that exists. FSU Libraries subscribes to several journals and databases to provide access for its students, but an increase in publicly funded and published research can only append the framework of available research, data, and information that student communities here and at other universities will have access to. Looking forward towards the future, this relationship with academic journals and publishing must continue to evolve and change.
Ideally, community owned and managed public knowledge infrastructure seems to be the long term solution, but how do we get there? Creative Commons, a non-profit organization and international network devoted to open access and broadening the scope of educational as well as creative works to be made available for others to build upon and share with legal protections, believes we must work on the progression of “open licensing to ensure open re-use rights”. I believe that if we want to move beyond access and towards improved sharing of the information and data we collect, produce, and use, we must begin following these steps and supporting organizations, like Creative Commons or the Subcommittee on Open Science, as well as continue to expand who contributes to new knowledge. Most importantly we must stay informed with the latest policy updates and changes, guiding researchers to success from different backgrounds and at all levels of experience.
Committed to the development of open science, Florida State University Libraries is devoted to the free exchange and access of information on a global scale for the good of people everywhere. This change in policy not only reinforces our mission, but also prioritizes the need for comprehensive support and resources to support the students and research that our institution hosts. We are thrilled to continue to work alongside our researchers, offering a wide array of different services and workshops to navigate through these policy changes, as they openly share and provide increased access to their work. We will continue to develop upon this foundation and explore more ways we can champion open science at Florida State University and beyond.
For more information about how the FSU Libraries supports open access, please visit our Research and Publishing web page here.
For more specific details or information on the Nelson Memo, please see the White House OSTP announcement, here.
Author Bio: Liam Wirsansky is a second-year MSI student at Florida State University and the STEM Libraries Graduate Assistant at FSU’s Dirac Library. He currently serves as the President and Artistic Director of White Mouse Theatre Productions at FSU and acts as the Director of Research and Development for the Rosenstrasse Foundation. Liam loves the academic outlet that research has provided him as well as the opportunity to educate and assist students in the development of their information literacy skills.
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