Public Access Issue Heats Up

It was just over one year ago that NIH promulgated a policy on public access of scientific articles that contained data from NIH-funded grants. The current policy is that NIH requests but does not require authors of scientific manuscripts to submit their manuscripts, after acceptance to a peer-reviewed journal, to the PubMed Central database where the articles will be indexed and made available for free.

It was just over one year ago that NIH promulgated a policy on public access of scientific articles that contained data from NIH-funded grants. The current policy is that NIH requests but does not require authors of scientific manuscripts to submit their manuscripts, after acceptance to a peer-reviewed journal, to the PubMed Central database where the articles will be indexed and made available for free. The point of the NIH policy was to have the research data from NIH-funded projects made free to the public and available in one repository within 12 months of their acceptance to be published in a scientific journal.

NIH estimates that only two percent of NIH-funded manuscripts have been voluntarily deposited in PubMed Central, and has been in discussions with some publishers about ways to increase compliance with the policy. Concurrently, some public access partisans on Capitol Hill have introduced legislation that would require all articles written with federal funds to be made freely available.

APA and other scientific publishers raised a number of concerns about the public access policy before it went into effect. APA commented that while the goal of free public access was worthy, making articles available free would disrupt the markets, and probably decrease subscriptions to scientific journals, many of which are only barely profitable. Writing for APA, CEO Norman Anderson added that making articles available free to the public is not the same thing as making them accessible. The specialized language of science and incremental nature of articles in the scientific literature may raise more questions than they answer about treatment of illnesses or other issues that the public needs information about. As publisher of 43 scientific journals, the proceeds of which largely fund APA's activities on behalf of science, APA has a lot at stake in federal efforts to force changes in the business models of journals or to disrupt subscription income.

This month U.S. Sen. John Cornyn (R-TX) and Sen. Joseph Lieberman (D-CT) introduced S. 2695, The Public Access Information Act. Prompted by the lack of compliance with the NIH policy, this bill requires, rather than requests, that any research article written as a result of a federal grant from any U.S. agency (including National Science Foundation, NASA, etc. along with NIH) be made freely available within six months of acceptance by a peer-reviewed scientific journal.

APA's Steve Breckler, PhD, Executive Director for Science, wrote to Senators Cornyn and Lieberman that scientific publishers should not have their efforts "nationalized" by a one-size-fits-all federal policy. Breckler pointed out that if marginally profitable scientific journals are driven out of business by a requirement to provide their wares for free, many journals will go out of business and make it harder, not easier, for the interested public to find scientific information. (link to Cornyn letter) It is not considered likely that the Cornyn bill will be enacted in this session of Congress, but advocates are weighing in just in case.

Additional discussion is taking place at NIH, aimed at ironing out one of the consequences of the NIH public access policy: more than one 'copy of record' being available to the public. The final edited copies of scientific articles, in most cases, are not available in the NIH database, only the accepted drafts. The final formatted copies are still within control of the journal publishers. Some nonprofit publishers are working with NIH on a demonstration project that would allow NIH to get accepted drafts of articles, which would then be replaced after 12 months with the final formatted copies of articles.

How would more stringent public access policies affect scientific psychologists? Some have indicated support for public access policies that would make it easier for students and researchers to find the information they want. Others are concerned that if journals lose enough subscriptions, they would have to charge authors fees to publish articles, which would disproportionately affect early career scientists who are judged to a great extent on how much of their work is published.

The Science Policy Office is working with the Science Directorate and the Publications and Communications Directorate at APA to bring about workable policies on public access, and will bring SPIN readers more information on this issue as it becomes available.