US plans to open up government-funded science research papers to all

Remembering Aaron Swartz

Fourteen years after the late Aaron Swartz published his Guerilla Open Access Manifesto calling for the liberation of publicly funded scientific literature, the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy has called for taxpayer-funded research to be made available to the public at no cost.

Dr Alondra Nelson, the head of OSTP, issued guidance [PDF] to those in charge of US government departments and agencies directing them to update their public access policies – as soon as possible and no later than December 31, 2025 – to "make publications and their supporting data resulting from federally funded research publicly accessible without an embargo on their free and public release."

"The US is committed to the ideas that openness in science is fundamental, security is essential, and freedom and integrity are crucial," Nelson wrote in her memo. "Improving public access policies across the US government to promote the rapid sharing of federally funded research data with appropriate protections and accountability measures will allow for greater validity of research results and more equitable access to data resources aligned with these ideals."

In 2011, Swartz, who helped develop RSS and Creative Commons projects, was arrested by MIT police for setting up a computer without authorization in an MIT closet and downloading copies of academic journal articles from JSTOR, a digital library of academic journals with paywalled access. He aspired to make publicly funded research available to all.

As he wrote in his manifesto three years earlier, "We need to take information, wherever it is stored, make our copies and share them with the world. We need to take stuff that's out of copyright and add it to the archive. We need to buy secret databases and put them on the Web. We need to download scientific journals and upload them to file sharing networks."

For doing so, Swartz was charged with violating the US Computer Fraud and Abuse Act, a law criticized for being overly broad that has only recently been moderated via policy. He faced a potential sentence of as much as 35 years in jail.

Swartz rejected a plea bargain that called for a six-month sentence and tried to get a deal with no jail time but MIT reportedly wouldn't sign off on it. In January 2013, he killed himself at the age of 26.

A month later, the OSTP under the Obama administration issued a memo [PDF] titled, "Increasing Access to the Results of Federally Funded Scientific Research." It called for federal agencies and departments with over $100 million in annual research spending to develop a plan to promote greater access to publicly funded research.

But as Nelson points out in her memo, the old guidance endorsed a twelve-month post-publication embargo period that allowed academic publishers to maintain an exclusive, remunerative distribution window.

"This provision has limited immediate access of federally funded research results to only those able to pay for it or who have privileged access through libraries or other institutions," explains Nelson. "Financial means and privileged access must never be the prerequisites to realizing the benefits of federally funded research that the American public deserves."

In 2019, the Trump administration contemplated an Executive Order to abolish the 12-month embargo window. But there was pushback from academic publishers and the science community, keen to keep the revenue generated during the embargo period. The Executive Order was never issued.

The economic analysis [PDF] published in conjunction with Nelson's memo cites figures from the Scholarly Publishing and Academic Resources Coalition (SPARC) that show "the average cost to publish a research article from all funding sources falls between $2,000 and $3,000 dollars."

That cost, in many cases, can be charged against contracts, grants, and research budgets associated with federally funded research awards. Meanwhile, SPARC puts estimated profit per article for publishers somewhere between $1,500 and $2,000.

"Comparatively, the 'production' cost of depositing a federally funded research article into a free public access repository can be, conservatively, as low as $15 and even lower under a federally owned and managed repository such as PubMed," the analysis says.

So getting rid of the year-long paywall period should save taxpayers between $390 million and $789 million, it's estimated. ®

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