Nobelists urge Trump to require free access to taxpayer-funded publications

doe library

UC Berkeley’s Doe Library. (Photo by J. Pierre Carrillo for the University Library)

Led by UC Berkeley’s Randy Schekman, 21 Nobel laureates from the United States have sent an open letter to President Donald Trump urging him to follow through on a rumored plan to make all federally funded research studies free for the public to read immediately upon publication.

Currently, most journals require a subscription to read their published articles, or make them publicly accessible after a certain period of time. In 2013, President Barack Obama required that all research funded by the U.S. government be made freely available online within 12 months of publication, specifically the peer-reviewed and accepted versions that authors receive prior to journal publication.

The rumor of a presidential executive order lifting this 12-month embargo and requiring immediate publication of author-accepted manuscripts originated in December, though it’s unclear who started the rumor. Several for-profit scientific publishing houses quickly expressed strong opposition, warning of dire consequences for U.S. discovery and innovation.

The Jan. 24 letter, submitted to the president yesterday (Monday, Jan. 27), concludes, “Your policy, President Trump, has the potential to transform American research, to accelerate the conduct of science across the states, and to further increase our nation’s profile on the world stage. Please, sign this important executive order and remove the embargo on access to publicly funded research in the United States.”

Schekman, a professor of molecular and cell biology and co-recipient of the 2013 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine, has long pushed back against academic journal publishers opposed to open access, claiming that the current publishing model is a brake on research advances.

“The hyperbolic reaction of the traditional publishing industry to this proposed policy change is nothing more than an attempt to protect its often excessive profit margin,” he said. “If the White House does something, it will be putting more pressure on the publishers.”

The 10-campus University of California system is currently at a stalemate with one publisher, Elsevier, over the cost of subscriptions and public access to published studies. As a result, UC let its contract with Elsevier expire more than a year ago, hampering UC researchers’ immediate access to top-flight journals such as Cell and The Lancet.

“The proposed policy change suggested by the (White House) Office of Science and Technology Policy is long overdue and will be of enormous benefit to academics, as well as to those who do not have access to the taxpayer-funded research that is held behind a paywall in the traditional subscription model of publication,” Schekman said. “It makes no sense that scholars who do all the work and raise the funds to support their research, typically from taxpayer-funded sources, are then expected to pay to publish their work and then pay, or have their home institutions pay, to read their own work.”

Jeffrey Mackie-Mason, University Librarian at Berkeley and co-chair of the systemwide team negotiating with Elsevier, agrees.

“Scientists since the early 1990s have called for their discoveries to be freely shared with all scientists and citizens in the world — not trapped behind a paywall. It doesn’t cost anything to copy and share an electronic manuscript,” he said. “These Nobel laureates eloquently call for a change to benefit society, not the excess profit margins of publishers.”

The letter, which was also signed by Berkeley economics Nobelist George Akerlof, is one of many sent by academics to the president in support of open access since the rumor began circulating last month. Many were spearheaded by the leading open access advocacy organization, Scholarly Publishing and Academic Resources Coalition (SPARC), which aims to “to democratize access to knowledge, accelerate discovery, and increase the return on our investment in research and education.”

“The Nobel letter was an important piece in demonstrating broad stakeholder support for open access,” wrote SPARC’s executive director, Heather Joseph, in an email. “It complements these letters from students, patients, publishers, researchers and libraries that have already gone to the White House.”

“I believe the open access model represents the future of scientific exchange,” Schekman said.

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