Academic Publishing, Open Access, and the Trump Administration


By: Kate Lechtenberg

Access Logo
MikeAMorrison [CC BY-SA]

Last month, it was first reported in E&E News that the Trump administration is considering issuing an executive order requiring that all scientific research funded by federal grants be immediately published via open access. Such an action would expand on the Obama administration’s 2013 executive order stipulating that one year after publication, federally funded research would be freely available to the taxpayers who funded it, unfettered by publishers’ paywalls. 

Open Access Advocates Celebrate

When I first read these headlines, I thought, “Now here’s an executive administration that I can get behind!” As a librarian, I believe in providing as much access to information as possible; as a scholar, I want my work in the hands of as many people as possible and I want free access to my colleagues’ work; and as an educator, I want my students to have access to the most current research. (Aside: Honestly, this executive order wouldn’t affect qualitative researchers like me, given that qualitative research is not funded by federal grants at the same rates as quantitative.) 

Indeed, proponents of open access policies are celebrating. The Scholarly Publishing and Academic Resources Coalition (SPARC), a coalition of academic librarians (which includes members from my own institution, the University of Iowa) has published a letter of support for the possible executive action, citing Europe’s “Plan S” as a reference for other nations’  general support for open access.

Publishers Protest

hand holding the word publishers
Creative Commons 3 [CC BY-SA 3.0]

Predictably, academic publishers are not happy. One hundred and twenty-five “leading publishers and non-profit scientific societies in the U.S.” co-signed a letter of protest, claiming that removing the one-year moratorium might “jeopardize the intellectual property of American organizations engaged in the creation of high-quality peer-reviewed journals and research articles and would potentially delay the publication of new research results.” 

Overall, the publishers are concerned that such a move would interfere with their business model and profit margins. I’m sure it would, and as a scholar who currently seeks publication without remuneration in multiple academic journals, I can’t say I have a lot of pity for the publishing companies making profit margins that rival Amazon’s, Google’s, and Apple’s, according to a 2017 article in The Guardian.

Academics Organizations Speaking for Their Members

Academic graduation hat

Given my own initial reaction of celebration and the support of the Open Access community, I was surprised to see the American Educational Research Association, an organization of which I am a member, send out a letter to its constituents saying that it had co-signed a similar letter of protest along with over 60 other academic organizations.

Explaining the choice to sign this letter of protest, AERA Executive Director Felice J. Levine said, “We believe that an even more open policy is feasible and potentially even desirable, but we urge, as in the past, that there be an open period of input to arrive at optimal feasible solutions.”

Indeed, the letter AERA co-signed concludes with a call for collaboration: “Rather than upsetting the current proven and successful model for reporting, curating and archiving scientific results and advancing the U.S. research enterprise, we encourage your Administration to engage with a broad array of stakeholders to collaboratively ensure openness and reliability in research and development. To that end, we stand ready to work with all interested parties in a forward-looking and constructive manner.”

I can certainly understand and appreciate the call for a thoughtful approach to changing the current policy and reforming academic publishing, but as one member of AERA, I would disagree with the description of the current academic publishing systems as a “proven and successful model.” While the system does provide for rigorous peer review, it is a model currently serves the financial interests of publishers more than scholars or universities. 

Steven Salzberg, of Johns Hopkins University, was quoted in Nature about the gap between organizations and their constituents: “I really doubt that most of those scientific and medical organizations made any attempt to poll their members about this issue.” I would be very curious to see a large-scale survey of published scholars’ views on this executive order and academic publishing as a whole.

Overhauling Academic Publishing

Yes, the debate over the Trump administration’s possible actions on scientific research raises larger questions about the academic publishing industry as a whole.  

Mackenzie Smith, University Librarian and Vice Provost for Digital Scholarship at the University of California, Davis, recently wrote about the UC system’s efforts to change their relationships with publishers and move toward open access. “Maybe it’s time to just blow up the whole system and start over,” she muses. Her article is a great primer on the complexities of the academic publishing system, and she proposes useful suggestions about how to move forward, maintaining the integrity of research and peer review, while increasing access.

I hope that the discussion around open access and academic publishing continues and that changes are made to move toward a system that respects the intellectual contributions of scholars and the needs of the public more than the profits of academic publishers. I don’t think it will be as simple as this rumored executive order, and I do hope the Trump administration engages with all stakeholders to move forward in pursuit of open access.

Kate Lechtenberg

Kate Lechtenberg earned a doctoral degree from the University of Iowa’s College of Education, where her research focused on how teachers select, frame, and facilitate discussions about controversial issues. She teaches courses in young adult and children’s literature, collection development, and critical literacy at the University of Iowa. Find her on Twitter @katelechtenberg.

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