By Rick Weiss
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, December 21, 2007
It is barely a drop of ink in the gargantuan omnibus spending bill that Congress just passed. But a provision that would give the public free access to the results of federally funded biomedical research represents a sweet victory for a coalition of researchers and activists who lobbied for the language for years.
Under the bill's terms, scientists getting grant money from the National Institutes of Health would now have to submit to the NIH a final copy of their research papers when those papers are accepted for publication in a journal. An NIH database would then post those papers, free to the public, within 12 months after publication.
The idea is that taxpayers, who have already paid for the research, should not have to subscribe to expensive scientific journals to read about the results.
That populist line -- spearheaded by patient advocacy groups seeking easier access to the latest medical findings and supported by libraries whose budgets have had trouble keeping up with rising journal subscription costs -- ultimately overwhelmed objections from journal publishers. Those firms had complained bitterly that proponents bypassed the congressional committees that could have carefully compared the new approach to less disruptive systems for making information available to the public, some of which are already being used by other science-funding agencies.
Among the publishers' concerns are that they would lose income from paid subscriptions, which would undermine their ability to sponsor educational activities and peer reviews. Of equal concern, they say, the policy may violate copyright law, a potential legal tangle that some hinted yesterday might have to get sorted out in court.
"The issue isn't finished yet," said Allan R. Adler, vice president for legal and governmental affairs at the Association of American Publishers, which lobbied hard against passage. "It's not as simple as some have made this out to be."
That attitude sounded Grinch-like to Heather Joseph, executive director of the Scholarly Publishing and Academic Resources Coalition, which led the fight for the open-access language.
"The basic reason we went to bat so hard for this was because we thought it was the right thing to do with taxpayers' science," Joseph said. "Now there will be $29 billion in taxpayer investments freely available to the public," she said, referring to the NIH medical research budget.
The NIH has had a voluntary program in place since 2005 encouraging grantees to submit their final manuscripts to a publicly accessible database within a year of publication. Agency officials have contended that journals would lose few subscribers because most scientists would not want to wait a year before reading about new research and because NIH-funded research is but a small fraction what most journals offer on their pages.
But as of September, only about 5 percent of eligible scientists have bothered to participate in the voluntary system. That inspired proponents to push for the congressional mandate.
"Mandatory deposition is a natural next step in NIH's efforts to ensure public access to the research it funds," said Matthew Cockerill, publisher of BioMed Central, which publishes more than 180 online scientific journals.
Cockerill noted that other major funders of research, including the Howard Hughes Medical Institute, based in Chevy Chase, and the Medical Research Council in Britain, recently instituted similar open-access requirements for grantees.
The NIH will now start working out how to implement the legislation, a process that could take six months, said John Burklow, NIH communications director. "Our main goal right now is to make sure everyone understands the policy and knows how to follow it" once it comes into effect, he said.