NIH announces 'open-access' rules

Critics say 'request' for deposit of manuscript within 12 months of publication isn't enough

By | February 4, 2005

The National Institutes of Health (NIH) yesterday (February 3) unveiled its long-awaited final policy on publication of sponsored research results, only to draw criticism from both supporters and critics of open access.

The new policy, effective May 2, 2005, "requests" that scientists voluntarily deposit electronic copies of their final, peer-reviewed manuscripts with NIH's PubMed Central database "as soon as possible" after acceptance for publication. Authors can specify when their manuscripts would be publicly released, anywhere from immediately to 12 months after publication. The policy also places the burden on scientists to resolve any copyright disputes with journal publishers.

"Scientists have a right to see the results of their work disseminated as quickly and broadly as possible," NIH Director Elias A. Zerhouni said yesterday. "We urge publishers to work closely with authors in implementing this policy."

Reaction from nonprofit medical and scientific publishers yesterday was sharp. The new rule "is wasteful of federal research dollars and a missed opportunity" to use existing Internet search technologies, representatives of six scientific societies representing nearly 30 nonprofit journals said in a statement.

The new rule "will not achieve the goal of better access to science and will place an unreasonable burden on researchers by requiring them to pursue a duplicative submission process," stated Kathleen Case, publisher for the American Association for Cancer Research.

The public would be better served, the society representatives said, if NIH instead created an enhanced Internet search engine to index existing journal Web sites. This would avoid the confusion likely to result from publishing two different versions of the same article—an unedited version on PubMed and the final published journal version. Other signatory societies included the American Physiological Society, the Endocrine Society, and the American Society of Plant Biologists.

Norka Ruiz Bravo, NIH deputy director for extramural research, yesterday said scientists "have a right" to negotiate copyright issues with journal publishers. But Martin Frank, executive director of the American Physiological Society and coordinator of the DC Principles Coalition, said that approach "puts the authors in the middle" should publishers refuse to grant republication rights. Scientists would not be penalized for failing to have their papers posted, NIH officials said.

Supporters of open access were also critical of the new rule, calling it a "retreat" from NIH's earlier draft version, issued September, 3, 2004, that had specified public access within 6 months. "This policy is a step backward," stated Peter Suber, director of Public Knowledge's Open Access Project. "The policy is better than nothing, but it is a lot less than taxpayers deserved."

The NIH policy was to have been unveiled last month, but the announcement was abruptly cancelled over concerns that the controversy might become an issue during Senate confirmation hearings of Michael O. Leavitt, the new secretary of the Department of Health and Human Services, of which NIH is a component.

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