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Magazines > Information Today > October 2004
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Information Today

Vol. 21 No. 9 — October 2004

Up Front with Barbara Quint
Future of the NIH Open Access Policy
By Barbara Quint

Hallelujah! The day of liberation has come! And only the first of many more, I would predict. (For my own modest coverage, check out the NewsBreak at http://www.infotoday.com/newsbreaks/nb040913-1.shtml.)

Basically, the National Institutes of Health (NIH), funder of at least a quarter of the world's best medical research, will mandate that all grantees and contractors submit electronic copies of finished manuscripts for full-text release through PubMed Central, the National Library of Medicine's popular medical research site. Comments may be e-mailed to publicaccess@nih.gov through Nov. 2.

Under the new plan, final manuscripts should include any revisions made by authors in response to suggestions from editors or peer reviewers of the publishing journals. Acceptance of the research still depends, as in pre-Web days, on the acceptance for publication by quality medical journals—specifically those indexed in major life sciences databases. The NLM—itself an institute in the NIH—has graciously offered to take links to final published versions on publisher Web sites, if publishers volunteer them. But one way or another, public access to the research is the rule. In response to publishers' howls of anguish, the procedure does promise to hold up the full-text release on PubMed Central until 6 months after the print publication appears.

The House of Representatives Committee on Appropriations helped bring this about by pushing and prodding the NIH, but (and this is important) no statutory language was needed. It only took a change in NIH procedures and the boilerplate language in its grants. So if other federal research and development funding agencies wanted to follow suit, they too might not need legislative action to make it happen. Of course, legislative language could stop it from happening and, if any substantial expenses were involved, such moves might require appropriation approval by Congress.

But, as President Bartlett so often says in The West Wing, "What's next?"

This is a tremendous breakthrough. If Congress stays interested, it could accelerate the momentum of the open access movement exponentially. Already heads of other federal information agencies are queuing up for their chance to press for open access. Problems will arise, however. No other agency has such strong resources for handling data as the NLM. For example, one of the largest and most critical federal R&D funders, the National Science Foundation, has little or no comparable infrastructure. If it moved toward open access, it might follow the self-archiving route suggested by many researchers. (Do the words "God, help us!" mean anything to you?) If Congress wanted to redesign a system in an orderly fashion, it might even instruct the National Technical Information Service (NTIS) to follow the generous GPO Access model. Who knows?

We've long wearied of hearing obscenely rich STM commercial publishers crying "wolf" if their annual profit increases ever dropped within waving distance of single digits. No one listens anymore. However, this time long tails and hot yellow eyes may actually have come into view. If publishers are waiting for the community of librarians to pick up pitchforks and come to their rescue, they'd do better to find some trees to climb.

And things could get worse. For example, let's take a look at that protection the NIH has set in place—6 months after publication. How long do you think that will hold up? I'd say a year, but a colleague of mine sniggered and predicted 4 months. Look at the logic. The NLM has clinical trials databases that it promotes, in part, to help provide needed patient volunteers for research studies. Here are all these patient advocacy groups working on Congress to push open access, the same groups that the NIH can always count on to support their appropriation requests. What will happen when those patient advocacy groups come to the NIH/NLM crying for immediate release of research studies? The NIH/NLM could find itself defending the promotion of unproven medical experimentation on patients while withholding the results of completed research tests. Maybe they could palliate the groups by offering early release only through advocacy group sites, but, one way or another, I doubt they will hold out long.

What happens if the publishers are right this time and the wolf pack has arrived? Commercial STM publishers long ago adopted a policy of proliferating journals in order to proliferate revenues. Though designed to leech library budgets, the policy also expanded the network of peer reviewers and editorial boards. If publishers start to retract their operations in the face of emigration to free full text, that network could diminish too. Before publisher readers start yelling, "Aha," I still advocate open access. We must simply develop alternative models for independent, objective, authoritative evaluation of scientific results. After all, it's not like the existing system is such a prize.

By the way, if publishers decide to try holding out, for example, by avoiding NIH researchers (snicker), that won't work either. In fact, they may find that non-NIH researchers want to go into open access too. Already the self-archivers have pressured many publishers into more generous policies. Basically, the reward mechanisms working for authors operate on visibility, and people click more frequently on citations with accessible URLs than those without. More sites; more cites.

As information professionals, we may look back on this NIH policy change as the moment in time when open access began its final victory.

[Editor's Note: For more on the NIH and open access, see Robin Peek's article on page 17.]

 


Barbara Quint is editor of Searcher magazine. Her e-mail address is
bquint@mindspring.com.

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