The National Institutes of Health has proposed a major policy change that would require all scientists who receive funding from the agency to make the results of their research available to the public for free.
The proposal, posted on the agency's Web site late Friday and subject to a 60-day public comment period, would mark a significant departure from current practice, in which the scientific journals that publish those results retain control over that information. Subscriptions to those journals can run into the thousands of dollars. Nonsubscribers wishing to get individual articles must typically pay about $30 each -- fees that can quickly add up for someone trying to learn about a newly diagnosed disease in the family.
Although patient advocacy groups and other organizations have been lobbying hard for the proposed shift, the scientific publishing industry and related interests are crying foul. The move could drive some journals out of business, they say, and bankrupt some scientific societies that are dependent on journal profits to fulfill their research and education missions.
Whatever the outcome, both sides agree change is inevitable, given society's rising expectations of easy access to information from the Internet and the enormous interest in health -- a topic that NIH officials say accounts for about 40 percent of all Internet queries.
"The status quo is not an option," NIH Director Elias A. Zerhouni said last week at a meeting on the agency's Bethesda campus.
Pressure to make publicly financed research results more available to the public has been building for years but gained new momentum this summer with report language by the House Appropriations Committee.
"The committee is very concerned that there is insufficient public access to reports and data resulting from NIH-funded research," it read. "This situation . . . is contrary to the best interests of the U.S. taxpayers who paid for this research."
The report called upon NIH to devise a system that would ensure that NIH-funded research results be "freely and continuously available no later than six months after publication."
Although the language was nonbinding -- especially given the lack of similar pressure from the Senate -- it gave the NIH the political backing the agency needed to craft a system it had been leaning toward for more than a year. It brought a quick and panicked response from scientific publishers. If contents of their publications are to be made available for free, they argued, people will stop subscribing. And without journals, who would do the expensive work of selecting, peer-reviewing and editing research results into the clean and scientifically reliable products upon which scientists and the public have come to rely?
"The House has held no hearings and has established no evidentiary record," wrote Patricia S. Schroeder, a former Democratic House member from Colorado and now president and chief executive of the Association of American Publishers. Her recent letter was directed to Sen. Arlen Specter (R-Pa.), who heads the Senate appropriations subcommittee overseeing NIH. "Publishers feel steamrolled."
Other critics raised concerns about costs to citizens. "If the NIH has to increase the size of its grants or make other major expenditures to implement a new, open-access system, taxpayers will end up paying more money for less research," said Roberta E. Arnold of the Radiological Society of North America, which supports its scientific activities in part from its journal profits.
Supporters see things differently. "There's lots of free junk and advertisements for snake oil on the Internet, but people can't get the good research unless they pay for it. That does not seem right," said Richard J. Roberts, a research director at New England Biolabs in Beverly, Mass., and one of 25 Nobel laureates who recently signed a letter supporting a shift to open access.
Many doctors and other health professionals in the nation's smaller communities, where major medical libraries do not exist, could also benefit, he said.
Zerhouni heard those and other arguments in three meetings for scientists, publishers and patient advocates in the past six weeks. Last week he said he had concluded that publishers' estimates of how much such a system would harm them or cost the government were "way out of line" with reality.