Momentum for Open Access

Legislation requiring NIH-supported research to be online and free is on fast track, encouraging those who want that requirement for all federally supported research.
July 24, 2007

Last year, a proposal in Congress to require all federally supported research to be placed online, freely available, attracted considerable attention and debate -- and ultimately stalled.

This year, a measure that is narrower -- it would apply only to research supported by the National Institutes of Health -- appears within reach of passage. The proposal is part of the appropriations bill for the Education Department and the NIH, and passed the House of Representative without debate last week. The Senate Appropriations Committee has already approved the measure, which has attracted bipartisan support.

While supporters of the "open access" movement continue to want a similar provision to apply to all federally supported research, they view the prospect of a win on NIH-supported research as a significant breakthrough. "The long term vision is that public access to federally supported research is the place to be," said Heather Joseph, executive director of the Scholarly Publishing and Academic Resources Coalition, one of the groups pushing for open access. Passing the NIH bill would show that this is "sound and prudent public policy" and that "the sky won't fall."

But Patricia S. Schroeder, president of the Association of American Publishers, said that her group's opposition to the legislation was not lessened at all by its being limited this year to the NIH. Large publishers will be fine, but she predicted that the bill could eventually kill some small, nonprofit publishers that play key roles in advancing research. "It's the law of unintended consequences and to us that's very sad," Schroeder said.

The open access movement comes from a combination of philosophical and economic views. Proponents argue that since the federal government pays for much of the research that ends up in journals, and colleges and universities support that research by hiring faculty members and creating laboratories, it is unfair for the results of that research to be available only to those who can afford high subscription fees for journals.

The movement has taken off in recent years at a time when libraries have felt intense budget pressure as the Web seemingly made it possible to share information at minimal cost. In practical terms, how immediate or extensive open access requirements are can vary. The legislation passed by the House and looking strong in the Senate would require that NIH-supported research findings be placed in a free online database within 12 months of publication in a peer-reviewed journal.

Publishers have furiously opposed the legislation, saying that it would discourage many libraries from subscribing to journals and that it would make it impossible for journals to support the labor-intensive and vital work they do in peer review and in presenting work for publication. Some scholarly societies have faced tough debates over the issue, with professors pushing for open access so they can see more research and the societies' journal publishers fearful of lost subscription revenue.

The NIH open access requirement appears to be moving, both supporters and critics of the bill agree, for several reasons. One is that it part of an appropriations bill, which Congress generally wants to pass. Another is that NIH research on health is of interest not only to professors, but to physicians and the public. Finally, the NIH has been conducting an experiment in which a database exists for researchers to voluntarily deposit their findings, but few have done so -- enabling proponents of a requirement to say that they tried to pursue the issue on a voluntary basis.

Joseph, who has been pushing the open access bill, said that the result has been "incredible bipartisan support." She predicted that a broader bill would eventually pass as well, although this year the focus is on the NIH. And while higher education was initially divided on open access, there have been more signs in the last year of a coalescing of support around it, with groups of provosts of research universities or presidents of liberal arts colleges coming out in favor of open access. The Alliance for Taxpayer Access, a coalition of groups favoring the bill, has released a series of endorsements from library groups, scholars and others.

Schroeder, of the publishers' association, acknowledged that opinion in higher education has shifted in favor of open access. But she said that was based on a lack of knowledge. "Any time you tell somebody they are going to get something for free, they think 'yahoo.' " The problem, she said, is that "no one understands what publishers do." If academics realized what publishers did with the money they charge -- in terms of running peer review systems -- they would fear endangering them.

She also said that the requirement to put research online would force professors to spend time processing their papers, and she compared the requirement to one that would force police officers to spend less time fighting crime and more time on paperwork. "I want researchers doing research," Schroeder said.

Proponents of open access have generally said that the publishers are exaggerating the impact, and overlooking the way researchers would benefit from having access to research currently denied them when their libraries cancel journal subscriptions they can no longer afford.

Because this year's bill is focused on the NIH, some scholarly groups that opposed last year's legislation are staying on the sidelines -- although they are still watching with interest. The American Anthropological Association is among the groups that opposed the open access bill last year, although plenty of anthropologists strongly backed it and some were critical of the association's stance.

Bill Davis, executive director of the association, said that some anthropology research does receive NIH support, but it is "not a major source of funding." As a result of the "limited scope" of the bill this year, his group is not taking a stance. He acknowledged a "continuing set of concerns" over how open access would affect the society's journal operations.

Even if the NIH bill doesn't have a major impact, he said, the association is currently working to consider a range of options in light of open access. "We're going through a whole set of internal discussions," he said, predicting that these would conclude by the end of the year.


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