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NIH Open Access Policy Turns 1 Year Old

pubmed logoOur guest blogger is Gavin Baker, assistant editor of Open Access News, which covers the open access movement, and Outreach Fellow for SPARC, a coalition of academic and research libraries that advocates for open access. The opinions expressed here are his own and not those of either organization.

Today marks one year since the National Institutes of Health’s Public Access Policy went into effect. (I covered the issue here in January 2008.) The policy requires that researchers funded by NIH post a copy of their journal manuscripts resulting from NIH-funded work into the freely-available PubMed Central database. This was the first such policy by a U.S. Federal agency. A year later, what impact has the policy had on science, and how has the policy community reacted?

The rule is achieving its goal of making the results of taxpayer-funded research available to other scientists, medical practitioners, patients, students, and the public. Before the policy was signed into law in December 2007, PubMed submissions never topped 1,500 per month, according to NIH statistics. Deposits have climbed since then. After implementation officially began in April 2008, monthly submissions have never dipped below 2,500. In January 2009, the most recent month for which statistics are available, submissions soared above 4,500. Those numbers represent a significant increase in taxpayer-funded information being made freely available to the public.

The policy has also continued to garner support from the library and scientific community, as well as some scholarly publishers. The biggest names in science publishing, though, have lined up against public access. The policy requires that NIH-funded manuscripts be made freely available no later than 12 months after acceptance for publication, which closed-access publishers have asserted will damage their ability to sell subscriptions to the journals in which NIH-funded authors publish their articles. But no journal has announced it will stop accepting the work of NIH-funded scientists as a consequence. Meanwhile, publishing giant Elsevier, one of the staunchest opponents of the policy, announced an 11 percent increase in profits in 2008.

One high-profile response to the policy was Rep. John Conyer’s (D-MI) Fair Copyright in Research Works Act, which would amend copyright law to overturn the policy and prevent other agencies from adopting similar public access policies. Conyers first introduced the bill in September 2008 and held a hearing at the time, and has since reintroduced the bill in the 111th Congress. The proposed legislation has raised the profile of the issue: the Association of American Universities, which represents top research universities in the U.S. and Canada and is an influential voice in higher education policy, weighed in for the first time in February 2009, supporting the NIH policy and opposing the Conyers bill.

The Obama administration has yet to make a public pronouncement on the policy. The Bush White House raised concerns about the NIH policy but didn’t strongly oppose it, and President Bush signed the policy into law as part of an appropriations bill. President Obama in March also signed the policy into law as part of an appropriations bill—this time amended to make the policy permanent—without publicly criticizing it. When I asked Kei Koizumi, assistant director for federal R&D at the Office of Science and Technology Policy, whether the Obama administration would support the policy, the answer was noncommittal. But supporters of public access are well-placed within the administration, including Harold Varmus, an outspoken advocate and former NIH director, who was appointed to co-chair the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology.

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