Published in The Hindu on April 22, 2008
Of what use is a research, particularly when it is funded by the government, if the results published in peer-reviewed journals are not freely accessible to the scientific community? Since many journals need a subscription to allow access to published papers, researchers, especially in developing countries, often find themselves at a disadvantage. The public access policy of the National Institutes of Health (NIH), the United States ’ federal agency for conducting and supporting research, has now corrected the anomaly. The landmark Consolidated Appropriations Act, 2008 passed recently makes it mandatory for researchers funded by NIH after April 7, 2008, to submit their final peer-reviewed manuscripts upon acceptance for publication to the agency’s PubMed Central online repository for free access no later than one year after the official date of publication. The scientific community is bound to greatly benefit as nearly 80,000 publications arise from NIH funded projects every year. In fact, it is surprising that the NIH allowed publishers to lock up thousands of papers all these years. Yet, allowing for an embargo of up to a year is not healthy, particularly in the field of medicine. By making it mandatory to submit the manuscript even before its publication, the policy has ensured that free access will be possible immediately after the expiry of the embargo date. Its initial move in 2005 to make free access possible failed as investigators were under no compulsion to comply. Though several open access peer-reviewed journals have come up and serve the cause of free dissemination, they are yet to become the first choice for paper submission as they do not enjoy the same standing as the established journals.
Though subscription is one source of revenue for journals, the apprehension that free online access would hurt their bottomline is misplaced; the Act is applicable only to papers arising from NIH funding. In fact, a number of publishers have already agreed to make published articles available to PubMed Central directly within the time stipulated. It is commendable that the NIH did not allow the commercial interests of publishers to override the merits of free dissemination of information in the cause of scientific advance. The NIH has resolved the contentious issue of copyrights dogging free access. By putting the onus on the authors to ensure that the copyrights transfer agreement with the publishers allows them to comply with the policy, it has ensured that compliance will be cent percent. It has rightly allowed the authors or the publishers to continue to assert ownership over the papers. And by spelling out clearly that compliance with the policy is a “statutory requirement” and that non-compliance will delay or prevent future grants, the policy has ensured that open access becomes a reality at last.