Executive Director's Column

Open Access and Public Understanding

NIH has been working to establish and grow a policy on public access. The goal is to post all of the journal publications that result from NIH grants, in a form that makes the full text freely available to the public.

By Steven Breckler, PhD

Over the past year, NIH has been working to establish and grow a policy on public access. The goal is to post all of the journal publications that result from NIH grants, in a form that makes the full text freely available to the public. When the policy was first introduced, contributions to the public archive were voluntary. Now NIH and some members of congress want to make the contributions mandatory - if your published journal article is supported in any way by a grant from NIH, you would be required to deposit the full-text article in the National Library of Medicine's PubMed Central archive.

APA joined with many other non-profit publishers of scientific journals to express concerns about the initial NIH policy. For one thing, NIH has not yet demonstrated that it can manage such a mammoth undertaking. Many of us also have serious reservations about concentrating so much gate-keeping authority in the hands of a federal agency. These agencies already control the direction of science through the allocation of funding. Under the new public access policy, it will be far too easy for the government to suppress research results that happen to be unpopular or politically unpalatable. It is an Orwellian nightmare for basic science.

Perhaps the greatest concern, however, is the disingenuous premise on which the public access policy is based. In Publication No. 05-5775, NIH asserts the following:

"Ensuring access to the full text of NIH-funded research publications will improve the public's understanding and appreciation of biomedical research findings. Enhanced access to information strengthens and expands the impact of research while disseminating it in a timelier manner. The online archive will increase the public's access to health-related publications at a time when demand for such information is on a steady rise."

I can't argue with the goal of enhancing public understanding of biomedical research results. It is important, and it needs to happen. I also appreciate that public demand for such information is growing. The problem is that the NIH public access policy will not deliver on these goals, nor will it satisfy the public demand.

Let me give just one example. In the latest issue of Psychological Bulletin (Vol. 132, No. 2) is a 37-page article by Marta Durantini and colleagues, discussing a meta-analysis of 166 HIV-prevention interventions. The topic is one of tremendous public interest and importance. The research was funded by several NIH grants, and the publication is exactly the sort being targeted by the NIH public access policy. The article is a classic meta-analysis, with tables full of hypotheses and meta-analytic statistics.

It is reasonable to ask whether lay members of the public - taxpayers whose hard-earned dollars helped to support this research - will gain from their reading of this article any better understanding of the research results. Some certainly will, but I suspect that most will not. For those who do want access, however, many options are available - a reprint request to the author, electronic access through a library, or purchase (for a nominal fee) directly from the APA website.

Public access is not really the problem here, and adding yet another avenue for public access will not necessarily enhance public understanding. What the public demands, I think, is an explanation of the research results in terms they will understand - what was the research about, what was found, what are the implications, what are the limitations, and how much closer does this get us to a cure or prevention?

The public deserves answers to these questions, they have a right to demand answers now, and to have those answers provided in a way they can understand and appreciate. As I see it, however, the NIH public access policy will accomplish none of this. The policy cannot be justified on this basis.

So what can NIH do? If public understanding is the goal, NIH can invest its resources more productively to make its funded research better understood. For example, each institute can hire a science writer whose job is to describe the results and implications of research in a form that can be readily comprehended. NIH can demand of its funded investigators that they produce articles written for a lay audience. The publishers of scientific journals can do more to publicize the content of their articles, and can invite commentary to explain the context and significance of the research described in articles. APA is a good model of a scientific association that uses its publication and electronic resources to produce many research-based publications for practitioners and the public.

Productive solutions exist for making the results of science better understood and appreciated. The NIH public access policy, however, is not among them.