The rumored proposal will require free, immediate access to all reports of government-funded scientific research. The rumor is credible enough that an association of 210 academic and research libraries has written to the president in support of the idea. The research-publication system is a mess, and open access would be one small step toward a fix.
But first, a little history. When scientific publishing began, scientists were few, many were amateurs, being a scientist was not a career, and publishing costs—copyediting, printing, distribution—were high. In 1800, only about thirty scientific and medical journals existed; by 1900, the number had grown to 700. Now, there are estimated to be more than twenty thousand. And they cost! Not the $100 or so per annum you can expect to pay for People magazine or Scientific American, but sometimes thousands of dollars. Although the most prestigious science journals, the weeklies Science (published by the American Association for the Advancement of Science) and Nature (published by Macmillan) cost less than $100, more obscure journals can cost much, much more. The Taylor & Francis Journal of Co-ordination Chemistry (just what is that, one wonders?), for 24 issues, costs $18,041 per year. That is an institutional rate. Many Elsevier journals do not even advertise rates for individuals and their website makes it pretty clear that the institutional rate often involves negotiation.