January 23, 2014

Omnibus Bill means a win for Open Access


Senator Barbara Mikulski and Congressman Hal Rogers shakin' on it.

Senator Barbara Mikulski and Congressman Hal Rogers shakin’ on it.

Tucked inside the $1 trillion bill that passed earlier this week, the 2014 Omnibus Appropriations Bill, is a crucial development for the Open Access movement in the United States.

The bill requires all federal agencies under the Departments of Labor, Health and Human Services, the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), the Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality (AHRQ), and the Department of Education with research budgets of $100 million or more to provide the public with online access to articles resulting from federally funded research, within 12 months of publication in a peer-reviewed journal.

This is a significant legal advance, since previously only the National Institutes of Health faced similar requirements, and it marks a major step away from flimsier memoranda and recommendations, like the February 2013 White House directive on Open Access (discussed in this Moby post).

OA advocates were excited: Heather Joseph, Executive Director of the Scholarly Publishing and Academic Resources Coalition (SPARC), said “This is an important step toward making federally funded scientific research available for everyone to use online at no cost,” and the Electronic Frontier Foundation called it “a huge win.”

Of course, it’s not only important that these policies apply to a greater swathe of federal agencies, but that the terms of those policies allow for freedom of access in many different ways. And seen in this light, the bill falls somewhat short of the terms in the proposed FASTR Act, another OA bill on the table. Peter Suber, OA advocate extraordinaire, compared them point by point on his blog:

Compared to the Fair Access to Science and Technology Research Act (FASTR) (February 2013), the new policies are:

–weaker by allowing embargoes up to 12 months (FASTR caps embargoes at 6 months)
–the same in applying to all work funded “in whole or in part” by a covered federal agency
–the same in applying to the author’s peer-reviewed manuscript
–the same in not applying to data
–weaker by not requiring reuse rights or open licenses
–the same in requiring deposit in repositories (green OA), not submission to OA journals (gold OA)
–stronger by being enacted legislation
–weaker by applying to just one fiscal year (though it could later be modified to become permanent, this happened to the NIH policy)
–weaker by applying to fewer agencies

There is, however, one area of debate that Suber didn’t mention in the list: where the research should be found and accessed. Many in the OA movement argue for a central repository, like the NIH’s PubMed Central (though FASTR would only require agencies to place research in a “stable digital repository” and the provisions of the current bill don’t specify where the research need be housed).

And it’s here that publishers are attempting to take back some ground by essentially making their own sandbox. Publishers Weekly reports that a group of some 90 publishers, academic associations and service providers, among them Elsevier, McGraw Hill, John Wiley & Sons, Oxford and Cambridge University Presses, and numerous associations, like the American Medical Association, have signed on to a project called CHORUS (Clearinghouse for the Open Research of the United States ).

CHORUS, which describes itself as “a not-for-profit public-private partnership to increase public access to peer-reviewed publications that report on federally funded research,” just started up earlier this year, and though on first glance, it looks relatively laudable and innocuous, its FAQs exhibit some prickly defensiveness. For instance, this question:

Was CHORUS conceived as a replacement for other institutional or subject-specific repositories, such as PubMedCentral (PMC), that already host articles reporting on publicly funded research? Wouldn’t it duplicate such repositories? Aren’t publishers offering to build something new while PMC is already built? No, no and no. CHORUS is designed with the understanding that one size does not fit all.

No, no, *and* no? Someone,  I think, is getting ready for a fight.


Sal Robinson is a former Melville House editor. She's also the co-founder of the Bridge Series, a reading series focused on translation.