Open Access News

News from the open access movement

Friday, June 27, 2008

White House calls for open data from 15 federal agencies

Section 1009 of the America COMPETES Act (August 2007) required the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP) to

...develop and issue an overarching set of principles to ensure the communication and open exchange of data and results to other agencies, policymakers, and the public of research conducted by a scientist employed by a Federal civilian agency...

The OSTP released its guidelines on May 28, 2008:  Core Principles for Communication of the Results of Scientific Research Conducted by Scientists Employed by Federal Civilian Agencies.  Excerpt:

Robust and open communication of scientific information is critical not only for advancing science, but also for ensuring that society is informed and provided with objective and factual information to make sound decisions.  Accordingly, the Federal government is committed to a culture of scientific openness that fosters and protects the open exchange of ideas, data and information to the scientific community, policymakers, and the public....

2.  Open Exchange of Research Data and Results by Federal Scientists

  1. Research data produced by scientists working within Federal agencies should, to the maximum extent possible and consistent with existing Federal law, regulations, and Presidential directives and orders, be made publicly available consistent with established practices in the relevant fields of research.

    1. Agencies should develop, and update as necessary, clear guidelines regarding processes for sharing research data and results generated by Federal scientists.  These guidelines should be consistent with the Information Quality Act guidelines.
    2. In developing the guidelines, agencies should endeavor to establish clear policies regarding preservation and storage of and access to publicly available data.
    3. Agencies should work to ensure awareness of and compliance with these guidelines, and ensure that responses to requests for publicly releasable information are made promptly, accurately, and completely....


  • The OSTP guidelines call for an OA mandate for the subset of publicly-funded research to which they apply.  That's very welcome and important.
  • Note two aspects of this subset:
    1. The guidelines only apply to research by agency employees, not research by grantees.  The distinction matters because under US law (17 USC 105), research by government employees is uncopyrightable. 
    2. The guidelines only apply to data, not texts.  This distinction also matters because (most) data elements are uncopyrightable facts. 
  • Hence, for two independent reasons, the OSTP guidelines apply to an uncopyrightable subset of publicly-funded research.  That wouldn't make an OA mandate any less welcome or important.  And it should disarm the kinds of opposition the NIH policy has attracted.  But it doesn't get us much closer to NIH-like policies at agencies beyond the NIH.
  • Should the OSTP could have gone further?  The statute directed it to develop guidelines for "data and results", not just for data.  Whether articles are "results" is open to interpretation, I concede.  And even if they were, OSTP guidelines on articles would very likely be weaker than these guidelines on data.  The section of the statute charging OSTP to write guidelines also charged it to "take into consideration the policies of peer-reviewed scientific journals in which Federal scientists may currently publish results."
  • The guidelines apply to research funded by 15 named federal agencies:  NASA, NSF, NIH, EPA, the Smithsonian Institution, and the Departments of Agriculture, Commerce, Energy, Education, Health and Human Services, Homeland Security, Interior, Justice, Transportation, and Veterans Affairs.  OSTP is asking all 15 agencies to develop policies in accordance with the guidelines and submit a progress report by July 31, 2008.
  • OSTP is calling for an open data mandate, but may or may not succeed in getting one.  The statute requires OSTP to write the guidelines but it doesn't require the agencies to comply.  It does ask the OSTP to "ensure" that the agencies adopt policies in conformity with its principles, but it's unclear what power OSTP has to do that.  On the other hand, the agencies may comply voluntarily.  Not only will they face little or no counter-lobbying from publishers, but the OSTP developed the guidelines in the first place "in consultation with...the heads of all Federal civilian agencies that conduct scientific research" (COMPETES Act, Section 1009). 
  • On a slightly different front, Section 7010 of the COMPETES Act requires OA for the "final project reports" of NSF-funded research.  Because these are summaries and not full-text articles, let alone full-text peer-reviewed articles, this provision of the Act sets a much lower standard than the NIH policy.  For that reason the AAP likes to cite this provision as a model.  But the AAP offers no reason to prefer it except that it is "recent" and "rational", when the statute demanding the NIH policy is more recent and more rational.  However, if the AAP citations have led you to think of the COMPETES Act as unfriendly to OA, the OSTI guidelines may change your mind.