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Why open access advocates aren’t thrilled with the DOE’s plan to expand public access to its research

U.S. Secretary of Energy Ernest Moniz (Mandel Ngan/AFP/Getty Images)

On Monday, the Department of Energy released its plan to implement a White House directive aimed at opening up more federally funded research to the public.

"Increasing access to the results of research funded by the Department of Energy will enable researchers and entrepreneurs to capitalize on our substantial research and development investments,” Secretary of Energy Ernest Moniz said in a press release. "These new policies set the stage for increased innovation, commercial opportunities, and accelerated scientific breakthroughs."

But some access advocates, such as Heather Joseph, the executive director of Scholarly Publishing and Academic Resources Coalition (SPARC), say the policy "falls short in some key areas."

In February 2013, the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy directed Federal agencies that spend more than $100 million a year in research and development to craft plans to ensure the public is able to access the results of their work within a year of publication, with some exceptions for legal or national security reasons. The directive was similar to a policy in place at the National Institutes of Health since 2008.

Academic publishers and open access advocates have sparred over what level of access the public should have to the research they fund with tax dollars and just how such access should be allowed, but the White House directive was seen as a victory for the academics and librarians who make up much of the latter camp.

The directive  required agencies to submit drafts of their plans to OSTP within six months, but the DOE plan is the first to be publicly released. It proposes creation of a portal called PAGES for Public Access Gateway for Energy & Science, now launched in beta, which will host metadata and abstracts for publications resulting from agency funding. If the full paper is available through the publisher or an institutional repository, PAGES will link to the full paper. If not available elsewhere, PAGES will host the full text as submitted by the author after the 12-month guideline laid out by the administration.

But while open access advocates are excited to see the White House directive moving forward, some are concerned about aspects of the DOE plan.

"The Department of Energy’s plan is the first opportunity we have to see how the administration will deliver on this vision – and there are clearly mixed results," says Joseph.

Among Joseph's complaints is that there's a lack of clarity around reuse rights. Under the DOE plan, publishers retain their rights under copyright to their version of the research, while the metadata in PAGES will be in the public domain.

"By simply pointing to articles on individual publisher Web sites, the DOE is missing a big opportunity to lay claim to a comprehensive collection of publicly-funded articles," she argues. SPARC also argues that this emphasis on defaulting to versions of articles hosted by publishers and the lack of a centralized system for searching  through research is a step in the wrong direction. "This kind of piecemeal approach also throws up roadblocks to these digital articles being made as useful as possible," she says. "It will certainly make it much harder for users to do any kind of computational analysis, text or data mining on DOE-funded articles -- the kind of innovative uses the White House directive was designed to encourage."

Rather than providing a searchable index of the full text of articles, PAGES will offer "distributed full-text access." The agency will maintain a "dark archive" of all manuscripts to be used if links become broken or full-text access is otherwise interrupted, according to the plan. But there do not appear to be any plans to use that tool to assist researchers hoping to analyze the larger data set of DOE's funded research, which could be a laborious task without such a centralized system.

For their part, publishers appear generally supportive of the DOE plan. "We welcome the Department of Energy’s work to advance public access,"  the Association of American Publishers said in a statement. However, the group also expressed concern about the 12-month embargo, referring to a study the group funded that suggests that the "half-life" of published research varies across disciplines, which is an argument against blanket embargo periods like in the NIH policy or the White House directive.