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Political Scene

Open Access: Open Debate?
Emily Lehr Wallace

Imagine any U.S. citizen having free and open access to research funded with tax dollars. Anyone, for example, could read the latest study on heart disease without having to pay the several thousand dollars a year it currently costs for a subscription to the nation’s leading medical journals. That possibility could be closer to reality than ever before, but Congress must first address some important concerns.

In September, the House of Representatives approved next year’s budget plan for the departments of Labor, Health and Human Services and Education. Accompanying this appropriations bill was a report issued by the subcommittee, with some surprising language about PubMed Central, an online storehouse of life science articles maintained by the National Library of Medicine (NLM). Not only did the committee praise the electronic repository for providing public access to life science articles, but it also strongly encouraged taking the project a step further: requiring all reports and data resulting from research funded by the National Institutes of Health (NIH) to be available on PubMed Central.

This is not the first time the idea of open access to federally funded scientific research has been brought up in Congress, nor will it be the last. But the introduction of this report language, which is not binding in law, could be a harbinger of change for all the sciences.

In the report, the committee cited the dramatic rise in scientific journal subscription prices as “contrary to the best interests of the U.S. taxpayers who paid for this research.” Specifically, however, it expressed concern that there is “insufficient public access to reports and data resulting from NIH-funded research.”

These concerns stem from some patient advocacy groups as well as local and university librarians, a vocal constituency. In response, NIH recently proposed that a complete electronic copy of any manuscript reporting work supported by NIH grants or contracts be provided to PubMed Central upon acceptance of the manuscript for publication in any scientific journal listed in the NLM’s PubMed directory. NIH grants would either cover the cost of publication to provide immediate access, or the publisher would need to make its papers available freely through the directory six months after publication.

The idea of any American being able to access the results of research paid for with tax dollars is a compelling one, especially if the research is biomedical. There are key questions though that have not been answered, such as what problems would open access solve and what is the impact of implementing open access for citizens, scientists, publishers and the peer-review process?

In answering these questions at a meeting of stakeholders in July, Dr. Elias Zerhouni, head of NIH, told the group that open access is necessary for NIH’s internal management of grants, is key to patient access and will help scientists who are currently being hindered because they cannot freely access each others’ research. Members of Congress and their staff on Capitol Hill pointed to the soaring cost of journals as the problem, quickly followed with a nod to patient access.

It is out of character for Congress to act so quickly on any issue. Typically, Congress explores an issue or a problem from every angle in order to formulate a solution. And yet regarding the issue of open access to scientific research, Congress has not held one hearing nor heard any debate. That’s despite the introduction of a bill in 2003 by Rep. Martin Sabo (D-Minn.) that would exclude research funded substantially by federal agencies from copyright. Opposition to this bill within the House was quick, and it has languished in committee without any discussion or hearings about moving it forward.

On one hand, this issue seems to be something that Congress is either not interested in or thinks is a bad idea because no hearings have been held on Sabo’s bill. On the other hand, this language about NIH moving to an open-access system was slipped into a must-pass spending bill, which suggests an urgent problem that must be solved and that open access is the consensus solution.

The only urgent problem is one of NIH’s own making. In 2005, Congress must evaluate and reauthorize NIH’s mission and budget plan for the next five years. The agency must come forward and explain how they spent their budget, which has steadily increased for the past five years. Apparently, NIH is not confident in its ability to explain itself, and its solution is to make everything freely available on the Internet. That way they can simply point to a Web site and tell Congress to look at the research for themselves. It is the easiest way for NIH to answer Congress’ tough questions.

That may be the easy answer, but it should come only after Congress has asked the questions, identified potential problems and explored solutions. There are members of Congress whose job it is to provide oversight of federal agencies and make sure they are staying on track. Other members are responsible for the yearly budgeting of those agencies. But those doling out federal funds should not be setting policy; in fact it is improper for them to do so. Instead, authorizers should explore this issue in depth next year during the NIH reauthorization hearings.

Full hearings are important, the questions and answers are important, and the legislation to reauthorize NIH for another five years is important. The speed and momentum of the open-access movement in the biomedical sciences, however, continues to ramp up and could make its way to all federally funded science research. This is groundbreaking science policy being set without any discussion or debate.

Future legislation and agency regulations must address the question of how open access could affect peer review and the equitability of research publishing. These issues need to be carefully considered before NIH or any other federal research entity leaps head first into the open-access unknown.


Wallace is with the Government Affairs Program at the American Geological Institute. Email: govt@agiweb.org.

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