Of Mythical Beasts and Zero-Embargo Mandates

By: Dean Sanderson, Fri Feb 28 2020
Dean Sanderson

Author: Dean Sanderson

Managing Director, Magazines and Research Services

Near the end of last year, it seemed like pretty much everyone in U.S. academic publishing had strong opinions about a mythical beast that all had heard about but none had actually seen: a rumored Executive Order (EO) from the White House Office of Science and Technology that would mandate immediate public availability of research results by federally-funded authors. Opinions were divided. Some (for example members of the Open Access Working Group (OAWG))  publicly supported the rumored EO on the grounds that it would accelerate scientific discovery; others put their name to an Association of American Publishers letter which highlighted concerns that it would  jeopardize intellectual property and possibly even delay the publication of new research.

Springer Nature didn’t sign either letter, even though we also had our concerns about the rumored mandate. We’re very proud of the role that Springer Nature, the world’s most comprehensive Open Access publisher, has played – and continues to play – in making research more open, so we wholeheartedly agree with the end goal of immediate open access. But the means to this end has to be carefully thought out, and ultimately structured in a sustainable way. Our concerns about a potential zero-embargo mandate for subscription content from the OSTP were that it might prove counterproductive and unsustainable, by resulting in slower progress towards Gold OA and ultimately hampering the wider ‘open’ agenda – Gold OA being much more than a different business model but the doorway to open science.  

So where are we now? 

After a series of meetings, including very positive and constructive ones with OSTP Director Kelvin Droegemeier and his Assistant Director for Academic Engagement, Lisa Nichols, the mythical beast has stayed just that; no one knows whether an EO will be issued, or what it would say.  For now, the OSTP has issued a broad yet detailed Request for Information (RFI) to better understand the research publishing landscape and the impact of any potential changes.  

While Springer Nature will be responding in detail, what our overarching message will be is already clear: the best way to ensure that full research results are shared freely and quickly is by publishing them via a Gold OA publication model. This is the only sustainable model that guarantees immediate and perpetual access to the final version of record (VoR), providing:  

  • Researchers with access to the final, citable version of the research as well as the full, live and updated data sets, all attached to the scientific record – thus giving them the knowledge that what they’re using to advance their own research is accurate, up-to-date, verified and trustworthy
  • Funders with the confidence that the research they’ve invested in will help speed discovery and make research more efficient
  • Governments with a better return on taxpayer investment in scientific research by improving its quality and usefulness while making it broadly available to the general public

In most cases, green OA, on the other hand – whether with a zero embargo or not – is not citable or connected to the scientific record, so researchers can’t easily build on it. Often it doesn’t provide access to the original data and so is neither replicable nor reusable, therefore limiting its usefulness for furthering academic discovery and public or commercial R&D initiatives. Moreover, it doesn’t give the general public access to many of the improvements publishers make to enhance the layout and understanding of the research, thereby making it more accessible to the lay person. And it still requires libraries and institutions to subscribe to access the version of record. 

It may look easier to achieve to funders and governments – with immediate availability of accepted manuscripts viewed as ‘good enough’ – but it won’t help them meet their objectives and could easily disincentivize others to support the full transition to Open Science. 

So when we respond to the OSTP’s RFI, we’ll focus on two clear recommendations: 

  1. Put resources behind Gold OA. As I argued above, to accelerate research sustainably, U.S. policymakers need to ensure that the money and incentives are in place for federally-funded researchers to publish their papers via Gold OA.  We know that’s easier said than done, particularly for disciplines where money is especially tight.  But working together, policymakers and publishers can push this forward.
  2. Drive better Open Data processes. We enthusiastically agree that Open Data is critical to the acceleration of scientific discovery.  This is an area where publishers can play an especially central role in driving progress by requiring Data Availability Statements, ensuring data sets have permanent identifiers, enabling machine readability of deposited data, and helping to ensure authors receive proper credit for their data – just a few ideas among many.  

We look forward to building on these and other recommendations to help the OSTP – and the academic publishing industry as a whole – make real progress towards an Open Science future.

*This blog was updated on 6th March 2020*

Dean Sanderson

Author: Dean Sanderson

Managing Director, Magazines and Research Services

Dean Sanderson is currently Managing Director of Magazines and Partner Services at Springer Nature.  Based in New York, he also serves as President of both Springer Nature America, Inc. and Scientific American.  He is jointly responsible with Alison Mitchell for the Nature Research imprint.

After ten years with the German publisher Bertelsmann in Hamburg and New York, Dean joined Scientific American in 1998 to run its largest subsidiary, Spektrum der Wissenschaft, in Heidelberg, Germany.  In 2008, he joined sister company Nature Publishing Group to take on responsibility for commercial and institutional sales.  Dean was Managing Director of Nature Research Group for three years before taking on his current role.