Open Access: House Vote Tomorrow
Open Access: House Vote Tomorrow
Open Access: House Vote Tomorrow

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    Tomorrow the House is set to vote on an appropriations bill that would mandate that all National Institutes of Health (NIH)-funded researchers make their findings publicly available, for free, within 12 months of publishing their work in a private journal. Currently the NIH is responsible for some $28 billion in research grants annually – about 28% of all money spent on biomedical research in the United States. But while taxpayers cover all these expenses, none of the results from these research grants must be made available to the public. Instead the findings of these projects are published in private academic journals, subscriptions to which can thousands of dollars for a single title.

    The NIH encourages the scientists it funds to publish their work in an open access forum through its PubMed website. The site isn't meant to replace academic journals; researchers can submit their work to be published online on a set date (often several months) after it is published in a journal. That way universities get the benefit of a peer-reviewed journal, while the public (and colleges that can't afford expensive subscriptions) get access to important medical information for free.

    Now, if every researcher who received NIH funding published their work in both a journal and through PubMed the NIH's website would receive about 5,000 submissions a month. Unfortunately the actual number is a small fraction of that: between May and September 2005 (the first year of the PubMed program), less than 2,000 works were put online. The trend has not changed, and the necessity of mandating open access publishing has become clear.

    Fortunately H.R. 2641 would change the NIH's directive to no longer just encourage researchers to publish their work on PubMed, but to require that they do so within 12 months of publishing in a private journal. The benefits of doing this are obvious, and not just for the individuals and universities who cannot afford expensive subscriptions, but also for the researchers who gain a much wider readership. A 2006 study found that articles immediately published in an open access format were twice as likely to be cited 4-10 months later than those articles published privately. Researchers work differently from other kinds of copyright holders like song writers who might depend on the sale of their works for income. In general, these researchers are already paid through their grant, so aiming for more citations, rather than more journal subscriptions, can be a big boon to their careers.

    HR 2641 has a strong chance of passing the House tomorrow, and with similar legislation working its way through the Senate, the NIH mandate may soon become law. But open access' critics are still active, and Representatives Howard Berman (D-CA) and Howard Coble (R-NC), respectively the Chairman and Ranking Member of the House Subcommittee on Courts, the Internet, and Intellectual Property, recently wrote a letter urging the Appropriations Committee not to approve the NIH mandate. The Subcommittee heads wrote:

    We understand and share the goal of widely disseminating the results of publicly-funded research. However, there are concerns the provision may, through blanket application, ultimately undermine incentives for publishers to make substantial investments in conducting peer review of research prior to publication and compromise the integrity of the copyright protections, which have served as catalysts for the investments and infrastructure needed to sustain a rigorous pre-publication peer review process.

    If the PubMed directory was meant to replace the private peer-review system, then the concern for the existing academic publishing process would be understandable. However, PubMed acts only as an addition to the existing peer-review process, not an alternative. HR 2641 only mandates that NIH-funded research already published in an academic journal must be on PubMed, and that in fact only research already published can be put on PubMed. Furthermore, because the delay between journal publication and PubMed publication would be as long as twelve months, and because journals publish a host of non-NIH-funded content, from privately funded studies to reviews to letters, institution seeking to stay current with medical publishing would continue to subscribe to their journals.

    Berman and Coble argue that mandating open access will interfere with publishers copyright protections (somehow, however, a voluntary system poses no problems). Putting research onto PubMed is not like placing a work into the public domain. The licensing rights to the work are still maintained by the author or the publisher, and the rights of readers on PubMed will only extend as far as fair use.

    What Berman and Coble seem to be most concerned about is that an open access mandate might cannibalize some potential revenue, long after initial publication for private journals (this is the same reasoning that others use to argue for perpetual copyright. The purpose of copyright is to disseminate knowledge and spur innovation, and making research public will certainly inspire more, new, and better research. With new content and new opportunities for research, mandated open access may soon prove to be as great benefit for journals as it will be for researchers and readers.