Editorial: A boost to open access

Published in The Hindu on April 2, 2009

In yet another initiative favouring the scientific community, President Barack Obama recently signed into law the 2009 Consolidated Appropriations Bill that includes a provision making the National Institutes of Health’s (NIH) public access policy permanent. This overrides the annual renewal clause of the public access policy implemented last year. The policy mandates all researchers funded, even partly, by the NIH to make their peer-reviewed manuscripts available at PubMed Central, the online archive of the National Library of Medicine, not later than a year after the official date of publication. The rationale is simple: research carried out using government funding should be freely available to everybody and not be locked up in subscription-based journals. It is established that freely accessible papers are read by a larger number of people than online content that is priced. About 80,000 papers published every year arise from the NIH’s $29 billion funding of health research. The number of people reading these papers is growing by the day. According to the U.S. Department of Health & Human Services, as of September 2008, five months after the policy came into effect, more than half of NIH-funded papers had been submitted to PubMed Central and about 400,000 users were accessing 700,000 articles every day.

However, despite its unquestionable benefits, the revised policy faces a challenge. A retrogressive bill — the Fair Copyright in Research Works Act — reintroduced in February 2009 aims at overturning the free access policy. The opposition stems from the fact that commercial publishers would no longer enjoy full rights over a large number of papers submitted to their journals. While the policy does not take away the publisher’s right to assert ownership over the paper’s copyright, it requires researchers to ensure that the copyright transfer agreement they sign with the publisher permits them to submit their papers to the NIH. The hollowness of the special interest opposition is exposed by the fact that the public access policy does not apply to papers already published, and it is within the right of publishers not to entertain papers where the authors would permit the NIH to make the content available in the online archive. The concept of open access is gaining greater acceptance among forward-looking publishers. Many open-access journals exist, and several subscription-based journals make papers freely available after a certain period of time. What needs to be remembered is that it is in the nature and spirit of science to seek open access.