NIH expands digital archive

Policy on Enhancing Public Access to Archived Publications Resulting from NIH-Funded Research

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A new policy asks scientists who receive research funds from the National Institutes of Health to voluntarily submit copies of their peer-reviewed research manuscripts to a digital archive at the National Library of Medicine. Manuscripts will be made available free to the public within a year after the research is published in a scientific journal.

In crafting the final policy, which will take effect May 2, NIH officials said they tried to balance public interest in free access to taxpayer-funded research with the commercial interests of publishers who disseminate health and medical information.

Elias Zerhouni, NIH’s director, addressed publishers’ concerns by allowing more flexibility for submitting articles to the online archive known as PubMed Central. However, other questions remain unanswered, said Allan Adler, vice president for legal and governmental affairs at the Association of American Publishers. How the new policy will affect for-profit and nonprofit publishers or the peer-review process is uncertain, he said.

Critics say the open-access movement may force researchers to pay to have their articles published in professional journals because free digital archives will undermine the financial basis of medical and scientific publishing.

But supporters of open access say NIH officials should have made the submission policy mandatory. “We think NIH certainly grasped the importance and rationale for taxpayer access to NIH-funded research,” said Rick Johnson, director of the Scholarly Publishing and Academic Resources Coalition. However, he said the policy’s execution could have been handled better.

“The unfortunate thing is that scientists have been put in the middle here,” he said. “We believe that NIH had the responsibility and the authority to call upon all NIH grantees to deposit their research articles.”

Patrice McDermott, deputy director of the American Library Association’s Office of Government Relations, expressed similar disappointment with the final policy for making researchers’ participation voluntary. “We think it’s a move back from what NIH initially agreed to,” she said.

In a draft policy released for public comment last September, NIH officials said all researchers who receive public funding would be required to make their results available free to the public via PubMed Central no later than six months after their research was published in a professional journal. The agency received more than 6,000 public comments on that proposal.

Publishers complained that the policy would give them little time to recoup their costs because many people and institutions would forgo buying expensive journal subscriptions if they knew that the same information would be available free online within six months.

PubMed Central, launched in February 2000, is a permanent and searchable electronic repository of health and medical information. In the past, it served as an archive for publishers willing to make back issues of their journals available through the repository. Now, it has been expanded into an archive for NIH-funded research.

A statement released by Zerhouni’s office states that “in developing this policy, we made a concerted effort to balance the importance of this archive to NIH’s public health mission with the need to provide flexibility for authors, their institutions and publishers in those cases where immediate release is not possible.”

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