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News Notes
Science and Society
Open access advancing

On May 2, exactly one year to the day after the National Institutes of Health (NIH) began to encourage their researchers to make their findings freely available online, U.S. Sens. Joseph Lieberman (D-Conn.) and John Cornyn (R-Texas) introduced a new bill to Congress. The bill proposes to both toughen and expand that “open-access” policy to include most federally funded research.

Advocates of open-access publishing say that research funded with taxpayers’ money should be freely available to all, without having to pay ever-increasing subscription fees for scholarly journals. Scientific publishers, however, assert that without those fees to pay publishing costs, many journals could fold and the quality of the science could suffer.

The current NIH open-access policy encourages, but does not require, researchers funded with NIH money to submit their papers to PubMed Central, the National Library of Medicine’s online system, within one year of publication in a scholarly journal. That policy is not rigorous enough, says Peter Suber, the Open Access Project Director at Public Knowledge, a Washington, D.C.-based open-access advocacy group.

Suber notes that an NIH progress report to Congress in January stated that among its funded researchers, the rate of compliance with the policy is less than 4 percent. Furthermore, he says, the 12-month lag time before the information is freely available is too long compared to the time frame in which medical and even biological research advances are made. The new bill would address these issues by requiring that all federal agencies with budgets larger than $100 million make their funded researchers’ articles available within six months.

“Six months is still a compromise of public interest,” Suber says, but making the policy mandatory is “exactly what we need, to solve the problem that the NIH did not solve.” NIH grantees have overwhelmingly expressed their willingness to comply, he says, but are just too busy. A mandatory policy would ensure that they take the time to do so.

But some publishers are less sure that scientists understand the issues clearly — particularly when it comes to transferring costs. “The real issue, to my mind, is: What is the effect on science of having no charge to the user or subscriber?” says Fred Spilhaus, executive director of the American Geophysical Union, which publishes several peer-reviewed journals.

The peer-review process, where research articles are sent to other researchers for anonymous review before acceptance, can be expensive for publishers, Spilhaus says. If readers choose not to subscribe because they can read journals for free, peer-review costs and other costs of publication would have to be transferred somewhere — most likely to the authors, he says. Such a system also means journals could end up competing for authors’ submissions and money, rather than selecting authors on the basis of their research. “That’s very bad for the science itself,” he says.

Framing the question as a funding issue is misleading, however, Suber says. Subscribers are not likely to cancel their subscriptions, he says, as they would want to maintain access to other journal material, such as news stories, editorials and non-federally funded research articles, which would not be part of the federal archive. The Association of College and Research Libraries, which represents a primary group of subscribers and supports the new bill, has also stated that it does not see why libraries would cancel subscriptions.

Furthermore, the current issue is one ofopen-access archiving, six months after the initial publication, not first-time publishing, Suber says. Due to the low rate of compliance with the NIH policy, little data is available to indicate what effect such an archive would have on journal subscriptions.

However, Suber points to one open-access online archive: arXiv, a collection of physics papers freely submitted by authors prior to peer review or acceptance in a journal. That collection has existed for years with no discernible effect on related journals, he says. The new bill, however, would require authors to submit the already peer-reviewed and accepted versions of their articles.

Even if more data were available on the impacts of the NIH policy, comparing its effects to the possible impact of the new bill on a much wider spectrum of science would be tricky, Spilhaus says, because biological and medical research tends to progress on different timescales than research in geology or physics. While discussing the topic with Sen. Cornyn’s staff, he says, one staffer compared biological research articles to cheese sitting on a grocery shelf — after six months, it can’t be given away. But in the earth sciences, research has a much longer shelf-life, Spilhaus says he told the staffer. “If I’m sitting on a gold mine, I can sell it anytime.”

The Lieberman-Cornyn proposal is only the latest in a string of initiatives before both the House and the Senate, Suber says. For example, on June 16, the House Appropriations Committee approved a provision attached to an appropriations bill that would make the existing NIH policy mandatory.

Carolyn Gramling

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