Vol 5. Issue 15 / May 2, 2005

Public Access 2005

By Jason Socrates Bardi

A few weeks back, while I was at a scientific conference in San Diego, I happened to catch a talk by a program director at one of the institutes within the National Institutes of Health (NIH) who was speaking about the NIH's new policy on publication.

What new policy, you might ask?

It's a new NIH policy that goes into effect on May 2, 2005, and, if you are a scientist, it concerns perhaps every paper you will ever write again. It's perhaps the most important policy you've never heard of.

The "NIH Public Access Policy" as it is formally called, impacts every one of the 65,000 or so papers published each year by scientific investigators funded in whole or part by NIH grants, contracts, cooperative agreements, or National Research Service Award fellowships. The policy basically calls for a full-text electronic version of any final manuscript accepted for publication to be sent to a free digital archive of biomedical and life sciences articles. The NIH archive is called PubMed Central.

Perhaps you have heard of the new policy.

The NIH has made no secret of its plans over the last year. Administrators at the NIH held a number of public meetings and sought comments from publishers, patient advocates, and scientists last year, as well as publishing a general notice calling for comments on the proposal in the NIH Guide for Grants and Contractson September 3, 2004 and in the Federal Register on September 17, 2004.

The reason for the new policy, the notice explains, is to make research funded by the NIH freely accessible. "It is essential to ensure that scientific information arising from NIH-funded research is available in a timely fashion to other scientists, health care providers, students, teachers, and the many millions of Americans searching the Web to obtain credible health-related information," reads one part of this call for comments. "The NIH's mission includes a long-standing commitment to share and support public access to the results and accomplishments of the activities that it funds." Elias Zerhouni, director of the NIH, also wrote an editorial in the December 10, 2004 issue of Science on the topic.

The database is already online, and if you log on, you will find a list of journals with their contents available for reading and downloading. After browsing through PubMed Central for an hour today (Friday, April 29), I saw that there were already articles from an alphabet of 184 journals, starting with AIDS Research and Therapy and ending with the World Journal of Surgical Oncology. There were many journals I recognized, including The EMBO journal, the Journal of Clinical Investigation and the Journal of Virology. Some, like Nucleic Acids Research make their articles freely available immediately upon publication. Others, like Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, make the text of their articles available after six months.

Still others, like the Public Library of Science journals go beyond free access to "open access." According to a document drafted in April 2003 by individuals meeting at the Maryland headquarters of the Howard Hughes Medical Institute, an open access publication is one that is not only submitted to a publicly accessible database such as PubMed Central, but also grants to all users "a free, irrevocable, worldwide, perpetual right of access to, and a license to copy, use, distribute, transmit and display the work publicly and to make and distribute derivative works, in any digital medium for any responsible purpose, subject to proper attribution..." Public Library of Science journals define one extreme—total public access.

But what of the other extreme? How will the new policy affect journals that do not currently provide access to their articles to anyone other than subscribers?

This remains to be seen, but some names were notably absent from the list of 184 PubMed Central journal participants—names of such prominent scientific journals such as Science, Nature, JACS, Cell, and others. One of the most interesting questions is what will these journals will do?

Another interesting question is what will scientists do? How widely will scientists submit their articles to PubMed Central? Currently, compliance is voluntary, not mandatory. Also unclear is the larger question of whether the new policy will change scientific publishing as we know it? That, too, remains to be seen. 

For more information on the new NIH Public Access Policy, see:

1) The Final NIH Public Access Policy Implementation web site

2) A press release from the NIH: "NIH Calls on Scientists to Speed Public Release of Research Publications—Online Archive Will Make Articles Accessible to the Public"

3) The Home page of PubMed Central, the NIH free digital archive of biomedical and life sciences journal literature: http://www.pubmedcentral.nih.gov/

4) Elias Zerhouni's editorial in Science: http://dx.doi.org/10.1126/science.1106929.


Send comments to: jasonb@scripps.edu