Open access gets a fillip

Published in The Hindu on April 17, 2008

Library10
Papers from NIH funded research will be freely available within one year of publication. The Act applies to research funded after April 7, 2008 and published in peer-reviewed journals

Researchers, scientists and health workers across the world can now rejoice. Access to many health and medicine related papers published in peer-reviewed subscription-based journals will be a click away. Free access has come to stay.

All research funded after April 7, 2008 by the U.S. National Institute of Health (NIH) and published in peer-reviewed subscription-based journals can be freely accessed within one year of publication.

Landmark decision

The Consolidated Appropriations Act passed recently has made this mandatory. And by the stroke of a pen, the legislation has ensured that it will be the NIH, and not the publishers, that will decide who should have access to published papers.

NIH is the premier Federal agency for supporting research and about 80,000 papers are published every year from research funded by the agency.

The NIH public access policy requires all investigators funded by the agency to submit an electronic version of their final peer-reviewed manuscript upon acceptance for publication, “to be made publicly available no later than 12 months after the official date of publication.”

These papers are required to be submitted to the agency’s PubMed Central online archive to “help advance science and improve human health.” The Act has left no room for denying free access — it covers investigators who were only partially funded by the NIH, and publications arising from NIH funded projects even if the investigators are not the authors.

The battle to provide free access has been going on for some time. It was in 2005 that the NIH took a tentative step. But the policy did not have the teeth to produce the desired results — it was not mandatory for researchers to comply.

While many journals have voluntarily made their contents available online for free, the majority desisted from doing so. The reason cited has been that any such arrangement would seriously affect their revenues. Subscription is a major source of revenue for journals. So any eroding of the subscription base, it was feared, would severely dent their bottomline.

It turned out to be a battle of the publisher’s prerogative to hold back information versus the funding agency’s right to demand free access. Since it was the taxpayers’ money that funded the research, how right was it to lock up the research findings in some journals?

And with the subscription fee of many journals being high and the number of journals increasing by the day, even well funded institutions find it difficult to buy many journals.

That many journals have already decided to make NIH funded papers available to PubMed Central (http://publicaccess.nih.gov/submit_process_journals.htm) is proof that the Act is indeed not draconian for the publishers.

Though Open Access journals have become popular, they are yet to become the authors’ first choice for paper submission. That is because the Open Access journals, unlike their counterparts, are at a disadvantage.

The decision to submit to certain journals is often based on the journal’s ranking measured by its impact factor. A paper published in a journal with a higher impact factor rating gets the authors more mileage and rewards. Open Access journals, unfortunately, do not have great impact factor rating.

The Act has in fact helped the researchers. While they can still choose which journals to submit their results to, the papers published in them would be available to a larger audience within a year’s time.

More the readers, more the chances of other authors citing their findings while writing up papers. And more the citations, the better the recognition.

Copyrights issue

And by finally making it explicitly clear that researchers should transfer their copyrights to journals only if the journals agree to all conditions of the NIH public access policy, the Act has left no scope for non-compliance.

The stick, of course, is that further funding may be delayed or even not granted if researchers do not comply.

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