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184. White House Rules for Open Access w/ Heather Joseph

The COVID-19 pandemic changed nearly every aspect of our lives. Schools and businesses shut down. Hospitals filled up. And many of us spent months alone or in familial ‘pods.’

But this dark period of global history had some bright spots, and many of them appeared in the scientific community. Rapid at-home testing became ubiquitous. mRNA vaccines were used to immunize millions against the worst outcomes. And funding flowed to scientists in virology, immunology, drug development, air quality and more.

As a society, we learned something else, though: science can save lives. More science, better science, and faster science can save more lives.

At the very heart of our pandemic response was the recognition that the only way out, was up. We had to research our way to prevention, treatments, vaccines, and cures. And anything that got in the way HAD to go.

One of the barriers to rapid discovery turned out to be science communication itself. Our antiquated system of publishing, developed in the age of the printing press, put too many blockades between the discovery and the dissemination.

A result that started at the lab bench might undergo weeks or months of authorship, submittal, peer review, and publication. And even then, those research papers may be hampered by a 12-month embargo on their release to the public, languishing behind journal paywalls and accessible only to those few libraries that can afford the subscription fees.

Pandemic response coordinators worked tirelessly to tear down those barriers. They lifted the embargoes on COVID-19 research, and digitized the articles and data for worldwide distribution.

A new policy from the White House will extend that rapid-response thinking beyond COVID to the rest of the scientific world.

In August 2022, a directive from the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy declared an end to the journal paywall. This memo establishes a timeline for ALL research funded by the US federal government to be made freely accessible to the public the moment it is published.

It does this not to punish legacy journals, but to improve the speed and dissemination of scientific research, to encourage equity of access, and to increase public trust in the scientific process.

This week, we talk with Heather Joseph, Executive Director of the open access advocacy organization SPARC. She tells us how this policy evolved, and what it means for the future of scientific publishing.

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