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'Open access' announcement scuttled

NIH cancels teleconference with Zerhouni, reportedly over fears of political controversy

By | January 13, 2005

The National Institutes of Health (NIH) abruptly cancelled a teleconference with director Elias A. Zerhouni scheduled for Tuesday (January 11), at which he was to announce "a new policy designed to accelerate the public's access to published articles resulting from NIH-funded research."

Zerhouni had planned to unveil the final version of the agency's long-awaited and controversial policy regarding publication of NIH-sponsored research results. The agency's draft version, issued September 3, 2004, requested that electronic copies of all final manuscripts based on NIH-sponsored research be made available through NIH's PubMed Central database 6 months after being accepted for journal publication.

It was anticipated that the final policy would have extended the time frame to 12 months, several sources said yesterday. The change was intended to be a compromise with scientific journal publishers and nonprofit research societies that had argued that open access would negatively affect their businesses or abilities to continue operating as membership organizations. The NIH did not say when the announcement might be rescheduled.

NIH spokesman Don Ralbovsky yesterday refused to discuss why the planned announcement had been cancelled. But Bush administration officials were reportedly concerned that the controversy might become an issue during confirmation hearings of Michael O. Leavitt, nominated to become the new secretary of the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), of which NIH is a component. Leavitt is scheduled to appear next week before the Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee, as well as the Senate Finance Committee.

Officials at several biomedical research organizations yesterday said they had heard reports that the White House, concerned about Leavitt's confirmation, had instructed NIH to cancel the open-access policy announcement—a matter that was first reported by Washington Fax, a daily science policy news service. "I have to question their logic," said one association official, who did not wish to be named. "With all the issues Leavitt will face, including Medicare, Medicaid, and Social Security privatization, why are they so concerned about open access? They already have a controversial draft proposal in place. Why wouldn't Leavitt be asked about that?"

White House spokesperson Maria Tamburri yesterday declined to discuss the matter, as did HHS spokesman Bill Pierce.

"It's a shame NIH didn't have the press briefing, because then we'd know what we're dealing with," said Martin Frank, executive director of the American Physiological Association and coordinator of DC Principles Coalition, a group of nonprofit scholarly publishers critical of NIH's publication policy. "If they change the timetable [for submitting final manuscripts], we'll look at it and decide if it's good, bad, or whatever."

The existing draft policy requests but does not require investigators whose research was supported in whole or in part by NIH to deposit the final, peer-reviewed manuscript with the National Library of Medicine's PubMed Central after it has been accepted for publication. NIH would embargo the manuscript from release for 6 months after the publisher's date of publication. Extending this time frame to 12 months, however, would make the policy coincide with the practice of many scientific associations.

"We already make content available on the Web at 12 months through links at Medline," said Alice Ra'anan, American Physiological Society spokesperson. "They'd be better off using the definitive article rather than the manuscript. NIH could create a better service less expensively by linking to the finished articles rather than creating a huge database of authors' manuscripts," she said.

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