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Increasing Access to the Results of Federally Funded Science

Three years after the OSTP directive, policies to make data and publications resulting from federally funded research publicly accessible are becoming the norm.

Today marks the third anniversary of the memorandum from Dr. John Holdren, Assistant to the President for Science and Technology and Director of the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy, directing Federal agencies with more than $100 million in annual research and development (R&D) expenditures to develop plans for increasing public access to the results of the research they support, specifically scholarly publications and digital data.

The memo recognized that making research results accessible to the largest possible audience – other researchers, business innovators, entrepreneurs, teachers, students, and the general public – can boost the returns from Federal investments in R&D. Increased access expands opportunities for new scientific knowledge to be applied to areas as diverse as health, energy, environmental protection, agriculture, and national security and to catalyze innovative breakthroughs that drive economic growth and prosperity.

Over the last three years, Federal agencies have made substantial progress toward increasing access to the results of funded research. As of today, 16 Federal departments and agencies have issued public access plans covering publications and digital data, and one additional agency has completed a plan for publications. The remaining agencies are nearing completion. Agencies with completed plans account for 98 percent of annual Federal R&D spending and include the Federal government’s largest R&D funders: Department of Defense (DOD), National Institutes of Health (NIH), Department of Energy (DOE), National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), and the National Science Foundation (NSF). Some agencies with less than $100 million per year of R&D are complying voluntarily. 

In recent months, agencies have been turning their plans into action. About half of the agencies with completed plans, including the Departments of Energy, Transportation, and Veterans Affairs (VA), NASA, National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST), and NSF now require those seeking Federal R&D funding to develop data management plans that describe the data to be collected in their studies and approaches for preserving and providing access to that data. Agencies are exploring various models for improving preservation and access to digital scientific data, including agency-supported data repositories, external data repositories, and cloud-based solutions.

For publications, the majority of agencies now require investigators to make peer-reviewed journal articles resulting from funded research publicly accessible in designated repositories not more than a year after their official date of publication. Agencies within the Department of Health and Human Services, plus VA, NASA, NIST, and the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), will require deposit into NIH’s PubMed Central. NOAA and DOT will make use of the Stacks system developed by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The Department of Education, U.S. Agency for International Development, U.S. Geological Survey (USGS), and Smithsonian Institution will make use of existing platforms, the Education Resources Information Center (ERIC), Development Experience Clearinghouse, USGS Publications Warehouse, and Smithsonian Research Online, respectively. Other agencies have established new repositories. The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) launched PubAg in 2013. DOD Public Access Search and NSF-Public Access Repository (NSF-PAR) will make use of technology developed by DOE for the Public Access Gateway to Energy and Science (PAGES) it launched in 2014.

These accomplishments to-date represent a sea change in access to Federally funded research results. In just three years, policies to promote public access to data and publications resulting from Federally funded research have become the rule rather than the exception. As the remaining agencies complete their plans and implement new policies and procedures, access to scholarly publications and digital data will become the default for all Federally funded research, opening up additional opportunities for productive reuse of scientific research results. 

Already, more than a million people per day use NIH’s PubMed Central and retrieve more than 2 million full-text journal articles to advance research, innovation, education, and individual health decisions. NIH recently announced steps to make author submitted manuscripts accessible to the public in a format that will allow robust text analyses. Publicly accessible weather and climate data from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) underlie forecasts that are valued at more than $32 billion per year. NOAA announced earlier this month new data management requirements that will enhance access to even more extramural research data. 

As agencies gain more experience, benefit from continued interagency cooperation, and engage with the broader stakeholder community, access to Federally funded scientific research results will continue to improve. Attention will shift away from what agencies are doing to promote public access toward what user communities are doing to use growing volumes of available information to address pressing societal and economic challenges. 

Jerry Sheehan is Assistant Director for Scientific Data and Information at the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy.