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The Hidden Inequities in OSTP’s New Guidance

by | Sep 8, 2022 | 3 comments

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By Kent Anderson, MBA, Founder of Caldera Publishing Solutions and “The Geyser”

Last week’s policy guidance announcement from the Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP) included three main documents — the guidance itself, a press release, and an economic analysis, which was also shared with Congress. And while all this made some OA advocates were dancing with joy, they may not have realized they were dancing to the music coming from the Big Publishers’ tent.

Photo by Stefan Steinbauer on Unsplash

A lot has been written about the new OSTP policy guidance already, so I decided to take the time to boil it down. Here are what I think are the most salient aspects:

  • The focus is on paywalls, and on establishing a “zero-embargo” policy for research funded by the US government
  • Publisher and stakeholder input was not sought prior to the guidance being issued, and everyone (with a few notable exceptions, discussed below) was caught flat-footed
  • Funding in this case means funding of any author, not just the primary investigator or the trial itself
  • The OSTP purveyed this new guidance while under the leadership of an acting Director, with the Senate yet to confirm a new Director
  • The OSTP lost its previous director, Eric Lander, earlier this year after a scandal over his treatment of staff
  • The economic analysis is superficial, downplays costs with rhetoric, and contains obvious contradictions, making it unlikely to withstand scrutiny from the Congressional Budget Office (CBO) or the Government Accountability Office (GAO)
  • While there is a lot of language about “equity” in the documents (forms of the word appear more than 30 times across the three documents), the term is used in vague ways, and concerns that the new OSTP guidance may create new inequities for early stage researchers and smaller institutes are waved away
  • Unlike previous OSTP guidance, this time there are budgetary consequences, with the US government potentially on the hook for billions in payments to publishers each year, many of which have their tax nexus outside the US
  • The OSTP guidance fails to address previously funded sources of US government data that have shifted to paywalled subscription models to maintain themselves after funding ran out

There is a sense that the overall justification for the report is disingenuous, given how cherry picked the data are, the cheerleading tone of the press release and portions of the economic analysis, and the way some documentary sources are misrepresented. There are also major challenges to science, public trust, and scholarship the OSTP doesn’t address:

  • science careers, particularly for young researchers, which are stalled or defunct due to too many people trained in STEM and too little money to support them
  • the rampant anti-science movement, much of it propelled by willful misinterpretations of “free to access” scientific content
  • the corruption of our scientific and educational institutions by monied and ideological interests
  • the generally poor balance of education in key areas related to interpreting, interrogating, and translating science, including the humanities and arts
  • the lack of access to health care, good food, safe water, and safe public spaces many Americans deal with every day

As a sign of the disingenuousness in the economic analysis, a 1985 document from the Reagan Administration is cited, purporting to illustrate that “it has been the policy of the federal government to provide unrestricted access to the products of basic and applied research funded by the United States to foster the free exchange of ideas.”

Follow up on the citation, and you see that the 1985 document in question is an unclassified “national security decision” issued in the wake of “the acquisition of advanced technology from the United States by Eastern Bloc nations for the purpose of enhancing their military capabilities.”

While the document states that fundamental scientific and engineering research funded by the US government should remain “unrestricted” to “the maximum extent possible,” it also adds importantly that “the mechanism for control of information generated during federally-funded fundamental research in science, technology and engineering at colleges, universities and laboratories is classification.” The document then charges each agency with responsibilities for this classification.

With the CBO noting that 40% of US government R&D dollars are spent on defense projects, and a variety of regulations involving the classification and declassification reviews around US government-funded research into a variety of technology, military, and biological research, the issue of classification is a real one for taxpayer-funded research. A more genuine engagement with the reality of US-funded research may have brought this to light.

The policy guidance itself is a bit tentative, perhaps because it was generated under the watch of an acting Director. That is, it is not a set of requirements but suggestions — the word “should” is used in places where “must” would have occurred in the 2013 OSTP memo.

In addition, the policy guidance does speak of issues such as security and integrity, creating a broad exception for what data is made publicly available. Section 3(c)(i) discusses legal, privacy, ethical, technical, IP, and security (including national security) limitations to public access. These are significant hedges that could allow for major tranches of US-funded research to be withheld from free public release, or public release at all.

There are two sections in the policy guidance that indicate the US government expects to pay publishers and platforms — Section 3(a)(iii) and Section 3(d). The first references this in a roundabout manner, but the meaning seems clear enough. The latter is much clearer. Estimates of the costs all use the word “billions,” but the number to put in front isn’t clear, with the range running from $2-8 billion and upwards in various calculations.

There is also no mention whether science databases started by the US government and then defunded (e.g., TAIR, FlyBase) will get new funding via these OSTP initiatives, or if they will need to continue to sustain themselves via subscription fees and paywalls. That is, is this new OSTP guidance retroactive in some way?

In a bit of background intrigue, some observers — myself included — noticed that SPARC and ORFG (which is an offshoot of SPARC) were able to issue press releases in conjunction with the OSTP materials. SPARC is a source of some of the superficial economic analysis, and raises questions about how a project in a high-profile lobbying firm may have known about the OSTP guidance beforehand.

The economic bargain at the heart of the OSTP approach is based on the mistaken yet persistent idea that because US taxpayers paid for the research, they should have access to the resulting papers. With a wave of the pen, the OSTP brushes away the phenomenal expenses and efforts of reviewing thousands of manuscripts and selecting the most worthwhile and relevant for a particular audience. Or, they commit the US government to shouldering these costs with an inadequate economic analysis, a risk of a different kind.

OSTP will not be testing for nation-level access, ala the BBC, thereby creating a worldwide subsidy, ala the RCUK. How this plays over time politically and economically will also be complicated and could backfire in ways we can only speculate about.

The economic report also elides the potential harm to non-profit societies in an odd way, noting they will likely be more subject to downsides, then brushing these off as a form of social Darwinism, and finally moving to cite an outdated analysis for-profit publisher (SAGE) as evidence that OA did not harm its profitability.

Perhaps the oddest note in the entire package is how often the texts include trendy words like “equity” and “equitable” in odd contexts. This is justified by a citation to a speech from June 2022 — just a few months ago — by the acting Director of OSTP, sociologist Alondra Nelson, at the G7 Summit. The infusion of such words may be her calling card.

In the 2013 OSTP Public Access memorandum, the word “equity” only appears in legal jargon at the end:

This memorandum is not intended to, and does not, create any right or benefit, substantive or procedural, enforceable at law or in equity, by any party against the United States; its departments, agencies; or entities, its officers, employees, or agents; or any other person.

This use of the word “equity” refers to a body of law seen infrequently today, usually in a Court of Chancery or similar body. In the current OSTP package, words like “equity” and “equitable” appear 13 times in the economic analysis, 8 times in the statement, and 12 times in the policy guidance.

“Equity” typically means being fair or impartial, but in the modern sense its meaning is less clear. The Milken Institute of Public Health parses the difference between “equality” and “equity” as follows:

Equality means each individual or group of people is given the same resources or opportunities. Equity recognizes that each person has different circumstances and allocates the exact resources and opportunities needed to reach an equal outcome.

One of the most startling uses of these words comes in the economic analysis, where OSTP claims the new approach will help bring about “equity in science.”

In the strictest sense, this would mean everyone in the sciences would win a Nobel Prize.

Again, the report acknowledges these policies may harm early-career scientists, but offers nothing to help.

While noting that the world has changed dramatically since their 2013 guidance, OSTP’s new policy seems like a throwback, parroting the same old people, ideas, and politics promulgated for decades now, while doing nothing to address the very real problems facing science and society today.

It reads as if events from the last two decades — well-funded terrorist networks; emboldened authoritarian regimes; persistent misinformation and online manipulation; algorithm-driven information cannons; and threats to cybersecurity — never happened. It reads like the world is still stuck in the late-1990s, where any digital advance will adhere to norms established prior to 1990.

Under President Trump and subsequently, we saw taxpayer-funded access and materials blocked, hidden, manipulated, or discarded, by both federal and aligned state officials, all of whom were themselves taxpayer-funded.

Remember the hidden data about Flint, Michigan’s drinking water? Recall when climate change data was removed from the EPA’s site? Or when the Department of Agriculture removed scads of data on animal welfare and testing? When his partisans stole voting rolls? When he took and hid government secrets?

Taxpayer funding is no guarantee of access to information or data. Politicians aren’t always to be trusted.

In the end, I think the OSTP policy guidance is a gimmick and not a positive structural step to help scientists or science. There isn’t any word about solving the career suicide pact most STEM trainees enter into when agreeing to pursue a PhD. There isn’t anything about ensuring rigor in results reporting, or efforts to blunt or undo misinformation around scientific findings. There isn’t a word about giving whistleblowers more protections to ensure that labs don’t cheat, or about increasing the penalties under the law if governmental information is removed from public view by partisan hacks (an imminent threat given the rise of certain political personalities). There is no increased demand for universities to aggressively pursue claims of research fraud, or new regulations around research misconduct.

Consider, for one, the inequities emerging because of OA and policies like this — more burdens on researchers, more commoditized and offshored publication processes, fewer intellectual centers focused on ferreting out errors or inflated claims, richer and fewer publishing executives taxed at lower rates, massive social media platforms profiting from scientific misinformation, and a public subjected to endless barrage of confusing claims and misinformation.

The OSTP policy change does not address such issues, but will feed into them.

Beyond eliminating the 12-month embargo, there is little here that addresses deeper problems in science or society. The direction OSTP is headed smacks of the same kind of techno-utopian initiatives and mindsets that have confused and exhausted researchers and the public over the past decade. And the Senate-approved Director of the OSTP, when she takes over, may not be pleased with this particular basket of controversies and costs being left to her by the current acting head of the agency.

In the end, the new OSTP guidance will give bigger publishers more leverage and better margins — most of whom are not based in the US.

How might American taxpayers feel about the equity of that?

Portions of this were previously published in “The Geyser” on August 29, 2022.

3 Comments

  1. Jean-Claude Guédon

    This text could be used, as a counter-example, to explain to students how to write a balanced, reasoned, objective and ultimately serene analysis of anything.

    Reply
    • Kent Anderson

      Or as an example of work by an award-winning writer and subject matter expert who makes money from his writing because people pay him to read what he writes.

      Reply
    • Arun

      Well said, Jean-Claude!

      Reply

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