WASHINGTON, DC, May 2 -- The Alliance for Taxpayer Access (ATA), a coalition that supports making taxpayer funded research accessible to the public, called today's rollout of the National Institutes of Health (NIH) "Public Access Policy" a positive step but voiced concern that the voluntary nature and discretionary timeframe of the policy may work against achieving the ends sought by NIH and Congress.
"The NIH policy establishes an important precedent," said Sharon Terry, CEO of the Genetic Alliance and an ATA spokesperson. "Not only does it recognize the taxpayers' right of access to publicly funded research, it also acknowledges that if research is readily available it will be used by millions to solve problems. That means an enhanced return on our investment in NIH."
Announced on Feb. 2 following a public comment period, the NIH Public Access policy <http://www.nih.gov/about/publicaccess/> asks NIH-funded researchers to voluntarily deposit their peer-reviewed research articles in PubMed Central, the NIH National Library of Medicine's publicly accessible online archive. Authors who choose to deposit their work are given a choice of when it will be available to the public -- anywhere from immediately to after a 12-month embargo.
On Friday (April 29) NIH issued a notice containing details on implementation of the policy <http://grants.nih.gov/grants/guide/notice-files/NOT-OD-05-045.html>. It restates NIH's expectation that "only in limited cases will authors deem it necessary to select the longest delay period."
In anticipation of the NIH policy, several journal publishers have announced policy changes that some observers believe thwart NIH's objectives. "It's disappointing to see journals announce their policies for NIH-funded authors," said Peter Suber, who is open-access project director for Public Knowledge and writes the SPARC Open Access Newsletter. "In each such case so far, journals are resisting the NIH request for public access 'as soon as possible' after publication and demanding embargoes of six or 12 months. This will slow down medical research and violate the NIH's own criteria for the policy."
"I hope researchers will do the right thing by depositing their research and specifying timely access," said Pat Furlong, president of Parent Project Muscular Dystrophy. "If researchers choose to deposit their papers in PubMed Central, we'll see them being used to speed the translation of medical advances into health care, to enhance health education, and to inform and empower patients in their health care decisions."
NIH specified three goals in developing the policy: to establish a stable archive of peer-reviewed research publications resulting from NIH-funded research, to better manage the NIH research portfolio, and to make published results of NIH-funded research more readily accessible to the public, health care providers, educators, and scientists.
"Although we believe NIH should and could have been more vigorous in advancing these laudable goals," said Rick Johnson, executive director of SPARC (Scholarly Publishing and Academic Resources Coalition) and a founder of the ATA, "we will be the first to offer our congratulations if the vast majority of NIH-funded research becomes available to all potential users in PubMed Central soon after publication. But if participation is weak or access is delayed too long, as will soon be evident, NIH must act to strengthen the policy and achieve its goals."
Robert Reinhard, board member of the AIDS Vaccine Advocacy Coalition (AVAC) said, "The policy's effectiveness will be measured not only in the quantity of deposited articles but also in their substance and importance to respective fields of study." Reinhard emphasized that, "Under the current plan, one might be concerned about NIH's commitment to promptly disseminating government-funded research results to those the studies would benefit -- patients and clinical trial participants, for example. The task at hand is to promote real public understanding of medical and scientific work."
In a Feb. 3 letter <http://www.taxpayeraccess.org/docs/ATA_to_HHS.pdf> to U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) Secretary Michael Leavitt, to whom NIH reports, ATA called on NIH to report to Congress and the public on progress toward full taxpayer access using two metrics: the proportion of eligible research articles that have been deposited in PubMed Central and the lag time between an article's publication in a journal and its availability in PubMed Central. In an April 5 response to ATA, NIH Director Elias Zerhouni said, "Issuance of the NIH Public Access Policy is the beginning of a process that will include refinement as experience develops, outcomes are evaluated, and public dialogue among all stakeholders is continued."
To help ensure the success of the policy, several academic library organizations -- including the Association of Academic Health Sciences Libraries, the Association of College and Research Libraries, the Association of Research Libraries, and SPARC -- have encouraged their members to inform NIH-supported researchers on their campuses about the NIH policy.
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The Alliance for Taxpayer Access is an informal coalition of stakeholders who support reforms that will make publicly funded biomedical research accessible to the public. The Alliance was formed in 2004 specifically to urge that peer-reviewed articles on taxpayer-funded research at NIH become fully accessible and available online and at no extra cost to the American public. Details on the Alliance may be found at <http://www.taxpayeraccess.org>.