If you have ever done research for school or work, or simply been curious about a scientific finding and wanted to read the publication, you are probably familiar with paywalls. Many journals protect access to scientific publications, and only make them available for costly fees or subscriptions, much to the chagrin of many people. But paywalls are ending soon on research that is funded by the US government.
On August 25, 2022, the White House released new guidance through the Office of Science and Technology Policy, announcing that by 2026, data gathered during federally funded research projects has to be made publicly available without cost or embargo.
The US National Institutes of Health is the largest funder of scientific research in the world, but the nature of publishing often meant that the US government and most of its citizens could not access that data without paying for it.
The rise of open access journals has helped to break down paywalls. The Public Library of Science (PLOS) launched its first open access journal, PLOS Biology, in 2003; scientists recognized the growing need for free access in scientific journals. Researchers that publish in PLOS and other open access journals typically have to cover the cost, however. Some of those fees are extremely high; Nature Neuroscience, for example, requires $11,000 from researchers who wish to publish an open access report in their journal. Grant money is typically used to cover those costs, although right now it is still unclear how journals will handle the changes and what they might require from scientists. Researchers should also use caution when selecting a journal to submit to, as the video below explains.
In 2020, the Howard Hughes Medical Institute began requiring recipients of its grants to make their publications freely available immediately. They had formerly allowed a 12 month embargo. The the European Commission (EC) also now requires findings to be reported in open access journals.
Pre-print servers have helped make some articles that are otherwise shielded by a paywall available to everyone. However, pre-prints are not reviewed, and many publications change significantly in between submission and publication. Right now, the top journals, usually considered to be Cell, Nature, and Science, still require subscriptions, though they have all created open access journal options like Cell Reports, Nature Communications, and Science Advances. Other new open access journals such as eLife have recently been established. Journals that currently require subscriptions or payments will have to find a way to accommodate the new rule, or will surely be closed off from a significant number of research findings.
Unsurprisingly, some in the publishing world are disappointed about the changes. A publishing trade group has already voiced its objection. Their opinions are undoubtedly informed by their business model. My personal opinion is that open access will enhance education, advance research, and expand the influence of the scientific community; knowledge is power that should be shared.