Indeed, Zerhouni said, open access might enhance business for many journal-publishing companies and societies. By giving the journals a bigger audience, he said, the scientific impact of those journals would increase. Because a journal's "impact factor" is a big determinant of where scientists submit their work, those with greatest access should be able to attract the best papers.
Although about 60,000 articles are published each year as a result of NIH funding, they make up only about a third of all the biomedical literature appearing in journals.
"Do you really think people are not going to subscribe to a journal because they can read 30 percent of the articles in it for free?" Roberts asked. Besides, he said, many journals offer other features such as news and commentary sections that are available only with a subscription.
The NIH proposal calls for researchers to submit their papers to the agency after they have been accepted for publication and edited by the accepting journal. By placing the responsibility on researchers, the policy avoids the prospect of the NIH trying to tell the journals to share those papers. Articles would not be made public by the NIH for six months -- "a compromise position," Zerhouni said, to give the journals time to profit from the work. After that, they would be available for free on the NIH's Web-based database, PubMed Central.
In an interview Friday, Specter said that because of his concerns about the ramifications of open access, he would not add supportive language to the Senate appropriations bill. But he said that he generally likes the open-access principle and that he hopes a reasonable policy will emerge with public input in the next two months.
Alan I. Leshner, president of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, which publishes the journal Science, said the NIH proposal appeared to address "some of the concerns" of publishers and "appears to be a reasonable compromise." Like some other journals, Science makes its articles freely available 12 months after publication.
Several experts predicted that if the NIH proposal is implemented, other major funders around the world will follow suit, triggering a global open-access revolution.
One person who will be celebrating is Debra Lappin of the Open Access Working Group, which has been lobbying for the change. She told Zerhouni last week that she had been part of a federal study of an experimental AIDS vaccine but had been unable to find out the study's results without paying.
"I paid twice for these results," she said. "I paid with my taxes and I paid with blood. I feel like I'm being asked to pay for a third time. I think that's outrageous."