House panel wants free public access to medical research

Scientists would have 12 months to submit articles

A measure added to the House appropriations bill for the Department of Health and Human Services would ensure that most medical research funded by public tax dollars is readily available to the public. Open-access advocates, publishers and some members of the House Appropriations Committee, which approved the bill, heralded the provision as long overdue.

The provision requires scientists funded by the National Institutes of Health to submit copies of their peer-reviewed journal manuscripts to NIH’s online archive, known as PubMed Central. Those manuscripts would then be made available to the public for free on the PubMed Central Web site within a year of publication.

The full House and the Senate still must approve the provision, which would add weight to an NIH public access policy that has been in effect for a year. That policy asks NIH-funded scientists to submit their manuscripts voluntarily.

According to a January NIH report signed by NIH Director Elias Zerhouni and sent to the committee, the voluntary system had only shown a 4 percent compliance rate at that time. The problem was not lack of awareness, according to the report.

Last month, Sens. John Cornyn (R-Texas) and Joe Lieberman (D-Conn.) introduced separate legislation that would require more sweeping reform. That bill directs agencies that fund more than $100 million in annual external research to publicly post electronic versions of peer-reviewed journal articles stemming from that research within six months after they appear in scientific journals.

The Cornyn-Lieberman legislation covers 11 agencies: the Agriculture, Commerce, Defense, Education, Energy, Health and Human Services, Homeland Security and Transportation departments; the Environmental Protection Agency; NASA; and the National Science Foundation. This month’s bill requires only that authors submit their peer-reviewed manuscripts to NIH within a year after publication.

The Alliance for Taxpayer Access, a coalition of organizations that promotes greater access to publicly funded research, lauded the provision. Heather Joseph, executive director of ATA member group Scholarly Publishing and Academic Resources Coalition, said the optional approach would never work.

“With a voluntary policy, you just don’t get the compliance,” Joseph said. “With a mandatory twist put in there, we have a much greater chance of compliance.”

But ATA members say the 12-month time delay could hold up news about advances in medicine and prevent citizens from obtaining information they need about treatments.

“For individuals and families struggling to stay abreast of scientific developments and make informed decisions about their care and their lives, access to credible, reliable and current information is often the difference between life and death,” said Pat Furlong, founding president and chief executive officer of ATA member organization Parent Project Muscular Dystrophy, in a statement. “However, the 12-month delay is too long for us to wait. As the bill moves forward, we urge members of both House and Senate committees to consider adopting a six-month embargo, if not immediate access.”

Most House lawmakers and many journal publishers seem pleased with the Appropriations Committee’s provision.

House Appropriations Committee spokesman John Scofield said the full House will likely approve the measure.

“There’s really nobody against this,” he said. “The bottom line is taxpayers pay for this research. They should be able to review it.”

Law to make research findings open to public not a sure thing

A measure designed to force publicly funded medical researchers to make their peer-reviewed articles available to the public at no cost still has several steps to complete before becoming law.

The provision was passed by the House Appropriations Committee as part of a larger appropriations bill. It still must pass the full House, and the Senate must also approve it.

The Senate is expected to vote on its Labor, Health and Human Services, Education and Related Agencies Appropriations bill later this summer. Members of the Senate Appropriations Committee have not drafted provisions about research access.

Senate Appropriations Committee staff members say senators have been earnestly debating whether to make the policy mandatory or voluntary.

— Aliya Sternstein


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