Open Access to Research Funded by U.S. Is at Issue

By Rick Weiss
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, November 1, 2007

A long-simmering debate over whether the results of government-funded research should be made freely available to the public could take a big step toward resolution as members of a House and Senate conference committee meet today to finalize the 2008 Department of Health and Human Services appropriations bill.

At issue is whether scientists funded by the National Institutes of Health should be required to publish the results of their research solely in journals that promise to make the articles available free within a year after publication.

The idea is that consumers should not have to buy expensive scientific journal subscriptions -- or be subject to pricey per-page charges for nonsubscribers -- to see the results of research they have already paid for with their taxes.

Until now, repeated efforts to legislate such a mandate have failed under pressure from the well-heeled journal publishing industry and some nonprofit scientific societies whose educational activities are supported by the profits from journals that they publish.

But proponents -- including patient advocates, who want easy access to the latest biomedical findings, and cash-strapped libraries looking for ways to temper escalating subscription costs -- have parlayed their consumer-friendly "public access" message into legislative language that has made it into the Senate and House versions of the new HHS bill.

That has set the stage for a last-minute lobbying showdown.

"There's been loads of debate and discussion, and at last it's going forward," said Heather Joseph, executive director of the Scholarly Publishing and Academic Resources Coalition, a Washington-based library group. She has been a persistent presence on Capitol Hill, making the case for open access.

Joseph and other supporters of the initiative have argued that subscription rolls would not plummet as a result of the requirement. Most journals contain plenty of research from non-NIH scientists, which would still be available only to subscribers, they say. And in any case, they contend, most scientists and libraries would not want to wait a year just to see research results free of charge.

They also point to the growing number of scientific journals that have switched to the open-access model, in which expenses are covered not by subscriptions but by fees charged to scientists whose work the journals publish. Such costs are usually covered by scientists' grant money.

Scientists assert that open access will speed innovation by making it easier for them to share and build on each other's findings.

"Congress recognizes that, in the Internet age, unimpeded access to publicly funded research results is essential for the advancement of science and public health," said NIH Director Elias A. Zerhouni.

A two-year-old policy encouraging, but not requiring, NIH-funded scientists to publish in open-access journals has not had much impact on where scientists send their manuscripts, in part because many of the most prestigious journals have not adopted the open approach.

Opponents say that the economics of the open-access model are still experimental and tenuous, and that some open-access journals are dependent on philanthropic-foundation money to balance their books. They also contend that the approach raises copyright issues.

"I think there are some very serious questions to examine as to whether this is an unwarranted government intrusion into the private-sector publishing industry," said Allan R. Adler, vice president for legal and government affairs at the Association of American Publishers, which has organized efforts to quash the movement.

Adler criticized proponents for attaching the language to an appropriations bill instead of going through formal hearings. And he said new programs designed to gently push federally funded researchers toward open-access journals should be given more time to work.

With both Senate and House appropriation committee chairmen in favor, the language requiring the change would normally be virtually assured, despite a recent negative White House pronouncement. But Hill watchers said that -- given President Bush's threat to veto the bill for budgetary reasons and the likelihood of a continuing resolution, which would not have the new language -- it is too soon for the open-access movement to publish a victory paper.

© 2007 The Washington Post Company