Today marks the third anniversary of the effective date of the National Institutes of Health’s (NIH) public access policy. This policy requires “all investigators funded by the NIH submit … to the National Library of Medicine’s PubMed Central an electronic version of their final, peer-reviewed manuscripts upon acceptance for publication, to be made publicly available no later than 12 months after the official date of publication.” Although deposit of works in PubMed Central and searches of the site have greatly increased (see graph at left) and sound arguments exist for promotion of public access to public-funded research, serious challenges, primarily in the form of proposed legislation, have been launched against the toddler policy. The first attack came in the fall of 2008 in the form of H.R.6845 (and later re-introduced as H.R. 801), entitled the “Fair Copyright in Research Works Act.” The bill, if enacted into law, would have effectively reversed the NIH policy by prohibiting any federal agency from imposing any condition, in connection with a funding agreement, that requires the transfer or license to or for a federal agency, or requires the absence or abandonment, of any of the exclusive rights of a copyright holder. The status of the NIH policy was solidified in March 2009 when President Obama signed into law the Consolidated Appropriations Act, which included a provision making the policy permanent. However, the assault upon the policy did not cease.
Days after the 2nd anniversary of the NIH policy, a bill was introduced (H.R. 5037) entitled the Federal Research Public Access Act. Had it been enacted, it would have required the 11 federal agencies that have outside research budgets of $100-million or more to adopt policies mandating timely public access to research they subsidize. Although not expressly held for the purpose of debating the bill, hearings in the summer of 2010 on the issue of public access to federally funded research revealed fierce opposition by publishers, notably the American Psychological Association, and the organization the Association of American Publishers to the mandate. In addition to the copyright argument raised previously, publishers strongly cautioned the economic impact suffered should open access be broadened. As reported in the Chronicle of Higher Education, the AAP argued “it is critical to distinguish between federally financed research and journal articles based on that research, which he described as partly the product of publishers’ labor. He repeated arguments often made by publishers about how their work enhances the value of research, and said that the 12-month embargo under the NIH policy is often not enough for publishers to recoup their investment.”
While the arguments promoting protection of publishers’ intellectual property and economic interests are meritorious, the arguments in favor of open and public access to scientific research continue to command greater heed. In a letter to lawmakers authored by several library organizations, the following compelling points in response to H.R. 801 were made regarding the need for open and public access to research:
- Broad public access allows scientists and researchers to collaborate with greater ease by allowing sharing of information, expedited discovery, and innovation.
- Public access policies ensure a permanent archive of research, which can be built upon by future scientists
- Public access promotes transparency and accountability
- Copyright law is not undermined under a public access policy because authors retain the ability to assign or transfer some or all of their exclusive rights to publishers or any other party of their choosing
Legislation that would expand the NIH policy, which has through the embargo and other terms taken into account these other interests, should be supported. The Right to Research Coalition has provided excellent resources to aid student proponents in voicing their support to certain members of the federal government, including the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy. For additional information and resources on the NIH policy and its potential, visit the Association of Research Libraries NIH Public Access Policy page.