Printable Version

SPECIAL UPDATE: Public Access to Federally Funded
Scientific Research

(Posted 10-26-04)


This update was originally sent out as an e-mail message to AGI's member societies.

IN A NUTSHELL: The way science is disseminated appears to be about to change dramatically, possibly altering fundamentally the way scientific results are vetted and distributed. Both Congress and the Administration are advancing the idea that any U.S. citizen should have free and open access to research funded with tax dollars. Each is proposing, legislating or advocating that the National Institutes of Health lead the way into this uncharted territory by requiring that all final manuscripts produced with NIH dollars be submitted to a government-run online information storehouse that will be freely accessible to the public six months after initial publication. Though specific right now to NIH-related activities, the results may well represent models by which all federally-funded research may need to adhere in the future, largely at the discretion of the funding agencies, and not necessarily with the power of Law.

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In recent years a movement toward "open access" to scholarly publications has been building momentum fueled by the high costs of scholarly journals, budget cuts and the technological advances that make information distribution incredibly efficient. Open access means anyone can access literature that is digital, online, free of charge, and free of most copyright and licensing restrictions.

This momentum has been gaining steam throughout the rest of the world, especially in Europe and Australia. In the United States, the National Institutes of Health (NIH) has been spearheading the move toward open distribution of federally-funded research. The movement dates back to 1998 but only recently has come to the forefront as an active policy initiative. In 2003, Representative Sabo (D-MN) introduced a bill to exclude the research funded substantially by federal agencies from copyright. Opposition to the bill was quick and it has languished in Committee for the past two years; however, a new version of the idea has surfaced and is advancing rapidly.

On September 9, 2004 the House of Representatives approved the FY2005 Labor, Health and Human Services and Education Appropriations bill. Accompanying this bill was a report issued by the subcommittee. Traditionally, reports that accompany appropriations bills are non-binding because they are not law; however, most agencies pay very close attention to their contents. This report contained language about PubMed Central, an online storehouse of life science articles maintained by the National Library of Medicine (NLM).

The Labor, Health and Human Services and Education Subcommittee commented on PubMed Central by saying, "The Committee is very concerned that there is insufficient public access to reports and data resulting from NIH-funded research. This situation, which has been exacerbated by the dramatic rise in scientific journal subscription prices, is contrary to the best interests of the U.S. taxpayers who paid for this research. The Committee is aware of a proposal to make the complete text of articles and supplemental materials generated by NIH-funded research available on PubMed Central (PMC), the digital library maintained by the National Library of Medicine (NLM). The Committee supports this proposal and recommends that NIH develop a policy, to apply from FY 2005 forward, requiring that a complete electronic copy of any manuscript reporting work supported by NIH grants or contracts be provided to PMC upon acceptance of the manuscript for publication in any scientific journal listed in the NLM's PubMed directory. Under this proposal, NLM would commence making these reports, together with supplemental materials, freely and continuously available six months after publication, or immediately in cases in which some or all of the publication costs are paid with NIH grant funds. For this purpose, `publication costs' would include fees charged by a publisher, such as color and page charges, or fees for digital distribution. NIH is instructed to submit a report to the Committee by December 1, 2004 about how it intends to implement this policy, including how it will ensure the reservation of rights by the NIH grantee, if required, to permit placement of the article in PMC and to allow appropriate public uses of this literature."

The Senate's version of the bill and the accompanying report, which were approved by the Senate Appropriations Committee on September 15th, contained no such language.

On the heels of this report, NIH published a notice of intent and request for comments in the Federal Register on September 17th. The notice details NIH's plans to enhance public access to NIH health-related research information. NIH proposes to have all grantees and supported Principal Investigators provide the NIH with electronic copies of final manuscripts that have been peer-reviewed, modified and readied for publication. According to the notice, NIH will archive these manuscripts in PubMed Central and each will be made freely available to the public six months after publication. If the publisher agrees, the manuscript may be made freely available sooner. The NIH is encouraging persons, groups and organizations to comment on its intentions and proposal by logging onto http://grants.nih.gov/grants/guide/public_access/add.htm. Alternately, comments may be e-mailed to PublicAccess@nih.gov or sent via U.S. postal mail to NIH Public Access Comments, National Institutes of Health, Office of Extramural Research, 6705 Rockledge Drive, Room 350, Bethesda, MD 20892-7963. Comments must be received on or before November 16, 2004.

Scientists have an opportunity to weigh in with their Congressman, Senator and the NIH prior to the November 16th deadline and let them know how these changes would affect their research, their department, their professional society and the journal to which they most often submit papers.

There are a lot of questions yet to be answered in the wake of NIH's announcement. With the open access model in place, most publishers believe that journals would be forced to recover the cost of publication by levying author fees. This is known as the author-pays model and some publishers doubt this is an effective or efficient way to recover costs; others predict outright failure and bankruptcy for many not-for-profit journal publishers.
Under this system, NIH would incur the cost of publishing the research it supports. Not only would taxpayers be paying for an online archive that would cost untold sums to maintain, but an author-pays system would introduce an inherent, structural conflict of interest into the peer-review process. The integrity of research could be, and some would say must be, questioned if the author submitting that research for evaluation and eventual publication is also the journal's source of income.

All scientists are standing at the crossroads of our profession - the intersection of the quest for knowledge and the dissemination thereof. We encourage you to weigh in with the decision makers on this issue prior to the November 16th deadline.

More information about public access to federally funded scientific research is available at http://www.agiweb.org/gap/legis108/public_access.html.

Special update prepared by Emily Lehr Wallace, AGI Government Affairs Program.

Sources: Thomas Legislative Database; Federal Register.

Please send any comments or requests for information to the AGI Government Affairs Program.

Posted October 26, 2004