“Agencies can enable free public access to research results simply by mandating that reports of federally funded research are made available as “preprints” on servers such as arXiv, bioRxiv, medRxiv, and chemRxiv, before being submitted for journal publication. This will ensure that the findings are freely accessible to anyone anywhere in the world. An important additional benefit is the immediate availability of the information, avoiding the long delays associated with evaluation by traditional scientific journals (typically around one year). Scientific inquiry then progresses faster, as has been particularly evident for COVID research during the pandemic.
Prior access mandates in the US and elsewhere have focused on articles published by academic journals. This complicated the issue by making it a question of how to adapt journal revenue streams and led to the emergence of new models based on article-processing charges (APCs). But APCs simply move the access barrier to authors: they are a significant financial obstacle for researchers in fields and communities that lack the funding to pay them. A preprint mandate would achieve universal access for both authors and readers upstream, ensuring the focus remains on providing access to research findings, rather than on how they are selected and filtered.
Mandating public access to preprints rather than articles in academic journals would also future-proof agencies’ access policies. The distinction between peer-reviewed and non-peer-reviewed material is blurring as new approaches make peer review an ongoing process rather than a judgment made at a single point in time. Peer review can be conducted independently of journals through initiatives like Review Commons. And traditional journal-based peer review is changing: for example, eLife, supported by several large funders, peer reviews submitted papers but no longer distinguishes accepted from rejected articles. The author’s “accepted” manuscript that is the focus of so-called Green Open Access policies may therefore no longer exist. Because of such ongoing change, mandating the free availability of preprints would be a straightforward and strategically astute policy for US funding agencies.
A preprint mandate would underscore the fundamental, often overlooked, point that it is the results of research to which the public should have access. The evaluation of that research by journals is part of an ongoing process of assessment that can take place after the results have been made openly available. Preprint mandates from the funders of research would also widen the possibilities for evolution within the system and avoid channeling it towards expensive APC-based publishing models. Furthermore, since articles on preprint servers can be accompanied by supplementary data deposits on the servers themselves or linked to data deposited elsewhere, preprint mandates would also provide mechanisms to accomplish the other important OSTP goal: availability of research data.”