Preprinting – a process in which researchers upload manuscripts to online servers prior to the completion of a formal peer review process – has proven to be a valuable tool for disseminating preliminary scientific findings. This model has the potential to speed up the process of discovery, enhance rigor through broad discussion, support equitable access to publishing, and promote transparency of the peer review process. Yet the model’s use and expansion is limited by a lack of explicit recognition within funding agency assessment practices.
The federal government should take action to support preprinting, preprint review, and “no-pay” publishing models in order to make scholarly publishing of federal outputs more rapid, rigorous, and cost-efficient.
In 2022, the Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP)’s “Ensuring Free, Immediate, and Equitable Access to Federally Funded Research” memo, written by Dr. Alondra Nelson, directed federal funding agencies to make the results of taxpayer-supported research immediately accessible to readers at no cost. This important development extended John P. Holdren’s 2013 “Increasing Access to the Results of Federally Funded Scientific Research” memo by covering all federal agencies and removing 12-month embargoes to free access and mirrored developments such as the open access provisions of Horizon 2020 in Europe.
One of the key provisions of the Nelson memo is that federal agencies should “allow researchers to include reasonable publication costs … as allowable expenses in all research budgets,” signaling support for the Article Processing Charges (APC) model. Thus, the Nelson memo creates barriers to equitable publishing for researchers with limited access to funds. Furthermore, leaving the definition of “reasonable costs” open to interpretation creates the risk that an increasing proportion of federal research funds will be siphoned by publishing. In 2022, OSTP estimated that American taxpayers are already paying $390 to $798 million annually to publish federally funded research.
Without further interventions, these costs are likely to rise, since publishers have historically responded to increasing demand for open access publishing by shifting from a subscription model to one in which authors pay to publish with article processing charges (APCs). For example, APC charges increased by 50 percent from 2010 to 2019.
The “no pay” model
In May 2023, the European Union’s council of ministers called for a “no pay” academic publishing model, in which costs are paid directly by institutions and funders to ensure equitable access to read and publish scholarship. There are several routes to achieve the no pay model, including transitioning journals to ‘Diamond’ Open Access models, in which neither authors nor readers are charged.
However, in contrast to models that rely on transforming journal publishing, an alternative approach relies on the burgeoning preprint system. Preprints are manuscripts posted online by authors to a repository, without charge to authors or readers. Over the past decade, their use across the scientific enterprise has grown dramatically, offering unique flexibility and speed to scientists and encouraging dynamic conversation. More recently, preprints have been paired with a new system of preprint peer review. In this model, organizations like Peer Community In, Review Commons, and RR\ID organize expert review of preprints from the community. These reviews are posted publicly and independent of a specific publisher or journal’s process.
Despite the growing popularity of this approach, its uptake is limited by a lack of support and incorporation into science funding and evaluation models. Federal action to encourage the “publish, then review” model offers several benefits:
- Research is available sooner, and society benefits more rapidly from new scientific findings. With preprints, researchers share their work with the community months or years ahead of journal publication, allowing others to build off their advances.
- Peer review is more efficient and rigorous because the content of the review reports (though not necessarily the identity of the reviewers) is open. Readers are able to understand the level of scrutiny that went into the review process. Furthermore, an open review process enables anyone in the community to join the conversation and bring in perspectives and expertise that are currently excluded. The review process is less wasteful since reviews are not discarded with journal rejection, making better use of researchers’ time.
- Taxpayer research dollars are used more effectively. Disentangling transparent fees for dissemination and peer reviews from a publishing market driven largely by prestige would result in lower publishing costs, enabling additional funds to be used for research.
To support preprint-based publishing and equitable access to research:
- Commission a report from the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine on benefits, risks, and projected costs to American taxpayers of supporting alternative scholarly publishing approaches, including open infrastructure for the “publish, then review” model.
- Coordinate support for key disciplinary infrastructures and peer review service providers with partnerships, discoverability initiatives, and funding.
- Draft a policy in which agencies require that papers resulting from federal funding are preprinted at or before submission to peer review and updated with each subsequent version; then work with agencies to conduct a feasibility study and stakeholder engagement to understand opportunities (including cost savings) and obstacles to implementation.
Science funding agencies should
- Recognize preprints and public peer review. Following the lead of the National Institutes of Health’s 2017 Guide Notice on Reporting Preprints and Other Interim Research Products, revise grant application and report guidelines to allow researchers to cite preprints. Extend this provision to include publicly accessible reviews they have received and authored. Provide guidance to reviewers on evaluating these outputs as scientific contributions within an applicant’s body of work.
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