Legislation requiring scientists to post peer-reviewed papers online within six months of publication draws criticism
By Ted Agres | May 11, 2006
A Senate bill that would require federally funded scientists to post their research papers freely on the Internet is drawing fire from many journal publishers and scientific societies. The Federal Research Public Access Act of 2006 (S 2695), introduced last week, mandates that scientists funded by the National Institutes of Health (NIH) and other agencies make their research results available without charge within six months after publication in a peer-reviewed journal.
The legislation, sponsored by Senators John Cornyn (R-Tex.) and Joseph Lieberman (D-Conn.), applies to all research funded by NIH and 10 other Federal agencies that annually award more than $100 million in extramural research grants. These include the National Science Foundation, NASA, the Environmental Protection Agency, and the departments of Agriculture, Commerce, and Homeland Security.
Not-for-profit research societies generally depend on journal subscription revenue to support peer review, scientific outreach, and other activities. Many fear that if articles become freely available too early, they might lose significant revenue, impacting their ability to conduct peer review. For-profit journals also argue that they need subscription fees to survive.
The bill unfairly puts authors "between the agency that funds the research and the publisher" should the latter refuse to grant republication rights, said Martin Frank, coordinator of the DC Principles Coalition, a group of more than 100 scholarly and not-for-profit journal publishers that supports wide dissemination of research findings. Frank is also executive director of the American Physiological Society, which publishes 14 journals.
Controversy surrounding public or open access of government-funded research has been swirling for several years. The NIH instituted policy in May 2005 that "requests" 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 copyright disputes with journal publishers.
But compliance has been extremely low -- less than 4% of eligible articles have been added to PubMed Central during the first eight months of the policy enactment, said NIH Director Elias A. Zerhouni in a January 2006 report to Congress. Peter Suber, director of the Open Access Project at Public Knowledge, a public-interest advocacy group, suggested that authors just didn't bother because the policy was not mandatory. "It's not as if the grantees thought it was a bad idea; they just have other things to do with their time," he said.
The Cornyn-Lieberman bill also requires NIH and other government agencies to create an online bibliography of all publicly accessible research papers, with each entry linking to the full text.
Howard Garrison, public affairs director for the Federation of American Scientists for Experimental Biology (FASEB), whose 21 member scientific organizations publish dozens of journals, critiqued this portion of the plan, arguing that Web sites and search engines from the private sector already catalogue publicly accessible papers. Stanford University's HighWire Press, for instance, links to more than 1.3 million full-text journal articles, most of which are available 6 months to a year after publication. Another free Internet site, patientINFORM, provides links to full text peer-reviewed biomedical journal articles as soon as they are published. "In times of scarce funding, we're not sure that duplication of effort really makes a lot of sense," Garrison said.
But the proposal has also drawn praise. "It's a very good piece of legislation," said Open Access Project's Suber. "It will vastly increase the return on U.S. investment in research by getting it into the hands of everybody who can build on it. Right now [the research] is locked up in subscription journals. By making research openly available, it makes it more usable," Suber told The Scientist. Advocacy groups also favor open access so new research results can be disseminated among patient populations quickly and inexpensively.
Odds of the legislation passing Congress this year are questionable, with summer recess looming and legislators being out for election-year campaigning. "I would be surprised if it gets a lot of consideration," Garrison said of the Senate bill. "But it could happen, and that's why we're taking it seriously."
Links within this article
Federal Research Public Access Act of 2006 (S 2695)
DC Principles Coalition
American Physiological Society
T. Agres, "NIH announces 'open access' rules," The Scientist, Feb. 4, 2005
T. Agres, "'Open access' announcement scuttled," The Scientist, January 13, 2005.
NIH public access policy
"Report on the NIH Public Access Policy"
FASEB member societies, publications