Editorial: Accessing publicly funded research

Published in The Hindu on July 25, 2009

In less than six months of U.S. President Barack Obama signing into law a bill that made the National Institutes of Health’s ‘public access policy’ permanent, a legislation has been introduced in the Senate aimed at expanding open access to all research funded by as many as 11 government agencies. These agencies spend over $100 million a year on research. Unlike in the case of the NIH where open access is required to be provided within a year of publication in peer-reviewed journals, the Federal Research Public Access Act 2009 seeks to cut the time frame to six months. This shorter deadline for making available the results of publicly funded research to non-subscribers of scientific journals will immensely benefit researchers and go a long way in advancing the cause of science. One year is too long a period in science where developments take place at a fast pace. In fact, a six-month time frame is already applied, for instance, by the Wellcome Foundation, a U.K.-based charity that funds medical research, the U.K. Medical Research Council and the European Research Council. The ERC has even indicated that it might go for much shorter time span than the “currently accepted standard of six months.”

The Consolidated Appropriations Act 2008 that applies to NIH-funded research and the current legislation face a threat from the Fair Copyright in Research Works Act introduced in the House in February. The FCRW Act is a retrograde law which if implemented can roll back the existing open access provisions. For too long journal publishers’ commercial interests have overridden the benefits that would accrue to a larger section of the society by making publicly funded research data freely accessible. For instance, five months after the policy came into effect last year, 400,000 users were accessing every day 700,000 articles born out of NIH-funded research. There is no denying that open access is gaining momentum, as many publishers have realised that free access is essential to ensure rapid and efficient communication of research findings. Several studies have shown that citation of papers by other authors is often high when they are freely accessible. While many are open access journals, others make their contents freely available either immediately after publication or a year after publication. While Science, a highly reputed and high-impact journal, makes its content freely available after a year, others make some of the material such as selected papers accessible immediately after publication.