Amy Brand: Open access and the role of the university

MIT Press director and publisher Amy Brand weighs in on a new U.S. policy requiring federally funded research to be freely accessible. How will this affect the way research is published and consumed?

The piece below is excerpted from an article in

The summer of 2022 was the sixth hottest in the global climate record. It came amid other weather-related disasters around the world, from drought to flooding, that will cost an estimated 20 billion USD. And it occurred while society was still dealing with the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic, which has caused more than 6 million deaths globally.

Our deteriorating climate and the COVID-19 pandemic have thrown into sharp relief how vitally important it is for scholars, scientists, policymakers, and the general public to have access to credible research. As a direct result of the pandemic, for example, we saw explosive growth in pre-print publication in the biomedical sciences. Researchers investigating the coronavirus from all angles rushed to get their findings out into the world without waiting for the journal publishing process to run its typical monthslong course.

In the U.S., new policies relating to open access (OA) scholarship are poised to dramatically change the way research is disseminated. On August 25th, the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy issued a long-anticipated memorandum titled “Ensuring Free, Immediate, and Equitable Access to Federally Funded Research.” In a nutshell, the new directive requires all grant-awarding federal agencies to make OA publication a condition for scholars to receive public funding. All 20-plus agencies must begin to comply with the directive in 2026. How will the new federal policy affect the OA landscape?

As the head of the MIT Press at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge, I have a specific perspective on OA publishing. I look to balance the priorities of running a business with the mission of expanding access to knowledge wherever and however possible. I anticipate momentous developments due to three provisions of the new directive.

First, the policy specifies immediate unfettered access to publicly funded research. This is a significant change from earlier policies, which gave publishers a 12-month embargo period, meaning research funded by federal dollars could be paywalled by journals for up to one year.

Next, while earlier directives were science-focused, the new policy covers all federal funding agencies. These include the National Endowment for the Arts, the National Endowment of the Humanities, the Department of Education, and more. This means federal grants awarded to scholars across the academic spectrum carry the same immediate public access requirement. In turn, journals in the arts, humanities, and social sciences—which have been slower than journals in the sciences to adopt compliant models—will have to find their OA footing quickly.

Finally, the new directive requires the agencies to incorporate provisions for associated research data into their public access plans. The data provision represents a significant step toward protecting our nation’s research and development competitiveness. Currently, compared to other countries with high levels of research spending, the U.S. lags in federal support and infrastructure for data. Publishers of peer-reviewed research have an important role to play here by requiring the articles they publish to link directly to relevant empirical results.

Let’s pause to celebrate this policy milestone. After a long and arduous climb, we can now glimpse the summit of free access to all publicly funded research. But what lies over the mountain? The broader objectives here are to democratize access to information, accelerate discovery, grow trust in the academy, elevate truth, and empower knowledge to have the greatest possible impact on our world. However, there appear to be many more peaks to scale.

As an academic publisher, I am acutely aware of playing merely a supporting role to the focal priorities of research and teaching. After all, university presses exist to serve the scholarly community. But they are operating within increasingly precarious financial parameters, and occasionally—well, with growing frequency—they feel compelled to declaim the value they provide. Academic presses are intended to safeguard the diffusion of knowledge from market forces.

If we agree that sharing knowledge for the greater good requires dissemination mechanisms that aren’t dominated by profit-driven interests, then we must wonder whether the new U.S. policy will ultimately strengthen or weaken commercial control of the academic publishing sector.

But other pivotal issues must be addressed. We must determine what financial models will sustain public access to research over the long term. We must determine the role of the higher ed sector in championing and funding OA, and identify the downstream ripple effects of making research content and data openly available for uses beyond sharing knowledge. 

As U.S. institutions begin complying with the new federal directive, we will find many other questions to deliberate. When and under what conditions should open research content be shared with licenses that prevent commercial re-use? As we engage in commercial partnerships that involve academic data and analytics, how can we protect the privacy of individuals within our community? Are there investments we can make now to promote and sustain a healthy level of competition and distributed innovation within research communications? 

But the most crucial questions might be these: How can we allocate our limited resources so they align with academic values that go beyond open access? How do we nurture a diversity of global voices and research fields? How do we promote fairness, equity, and transparency in how we assess excellence in knowledge production? How do we maintain integrity in research methods and communications and translate research advances for maximal policy impact?

In short, how do we guarantee academic freedom itself?

Sign up for our newsletter to be the first to hear news about our books and journals