The huge and growing availability of full-text medical and biology papers isn’t just a consequence of the NIH law, however. Most of the papers are ones that journals have voluntarily offered to provide without charge and often include studies published many years ago.
“What the White House announced is already happening in biomedicine,” said Donald Lindberg, the physician who heads the National Library of Medicine, the branch of NIH that operates PubMed.
Lindberg added, however, that an increasing amount of research is being paid for by pharmaceutical and biotech companies, which are not subject to the open access rules. Less than 20 percent of the clinical trials of new drugs and devices are paid for by the federal government.
In other federal agencies sponsoring research, the new directive is likely to make more of a difference.
The National Science Foundation is the chief government sponsor of non-medical scientific research. Its funding produces 25,000 to 40,000 publications a year from thousands of academic researchers, said Myron Gutmann, NSF’s assistant director.
Unlike medical research, the NSF-funded studies aren’t catalogued in a common database like PubMed. Instead, the wide variety of fields — physics, chemistry, mathematics, engineering, social sciences — have their own electronic archives. One of the goals of the policy announced Friday is to make searching those archives easier and quicker.
“What is exciting is to expose across many domains of science as much knowledge as possible so that innovation can take place,” Gutmann said.
Scientists at the U.S. Department of Agriculture produce about 10,000 research papers a year, with several thousand more written by outside scientists funded by USDA. The department believes that open access to agricultural research could cut in half the time required to produce plant varieties with desirable traits, such as resistance to drought or pests. This access will be especially useful to plant breeders in developing countries, said Catherine E. Woteki, USDA’s chief scientist.
“We think this is a big deal,” she said.
Selling archived copies of articles is a big business for journal publishers. One of the largest is Springer, a Germany-based company that publishes about 2,500 journals, with about 330 of them open-access.
“Springer seeks to ensure broad access to its content — this is the goal of all publishers,” said Eric Merkel-Sobotta, a Springer spokesman. He said that the White House policy “appears to support the idea that embargo periods of different length may be necessary, depending on discipline.” An article on a medical topic might be obsolete six months after publication, while one on an issue in mathematics “might still be highly relevant after five years.”
The open-access movement launched about a decade ago as the high cost of academic journals spurred libraries, scientists, and activists to search for ways to upend the 200-year-old stranglehold on scientific information enjoyed by academic publishers.
In 2003, a vanguard of scientists launched the Public Library of Science, now a series of free journals that attract submissions from top-name scientists. PLoS, as the journals are known, flips on its head the standard business model in which journals charge their readers. Instead, researchers pay to publish there and anyone can read the results. Another open-access biology journal, eLife, launched last year and relies on grants to operate.
“Open access” has also become a rallying cry for activists trying to set information free. Swartz, 26, a prominent computer programmer, faced severe federal charges for allegedly downloading some 5 million academic articles from JSTOR, a pay-walled journal repository. Swartz died by suicide in January as a court date loomed.
The hacker group Anonymous then broke into MIT’s computer network and promised to continue Swartz’s crusade.
“The world’s entire scientific and cultural heritage, published over centuries in books and journals, is increasingly being digitized and locked up by a handful of private corporations,” the group wrote. “We need to buy secret databases and put them on the Web. We need to download scientific journals and upload them to file sharing networks. We need to fight for Guerilla Open Access.”