A Setback for Open Access Publishing

You may recall the landmark open-access publishing rules that the National Institutes of Health was poised to adopt late last year (see previous post). Now it seems as though commercial journal publishers have succeeded in watering down the plan. The result: a diminished victory.

NIH was proposing that all of its $28 billion in research be made available for free, online, six months after its publication in peer-reviewed commercial journals. All articles would be deposited in the NIH’s online repository, PubMed Central, which would then be accessible to anyone with an Internet connection. Imagine the boon to scientists worldwide, who could collaborate on finding solutions to medical challenges. Imagine the benefit to ordinary doctors and citizens wanting to learn more about a given medical issue. Price and copyright permissions would not be an issue. And why should they? We, the taxpayers, have already paid for all this research.

But commercial journal publishers have an entrenched business model to protect, and have fought to weaken the NIH initiative. Even though public comments were overwhelmingly in favor of the previous NIH proposal (which itself was a compromise), NIH agreed to water down the plan even more.

Under a final version of the NIH plan issued in February, there is no mandatory rule that journal articles be made available through PubMed Central. Authors are allowed to decide when – and if – to publish their works in an open-access form. NIH encourages them to do so within 12 months, not the mandatory six months that was previously proposed. But even after 12 months, researchers are not required to go open-access. And if publishers demand that authors do not publish in an open-access venue, it could be hard for authors to resist. All of this is bad news for science, taxpayers and patients. In certain fast-moving fields like bio-medicine, the likely delays in access under the new plan are a setback.

Peter Suber, a leading observer of the NIH open access proposal, writes in Open Access News:

If taxpayers can’t simply mandate deposit [of articles into PubMed Central] as a condition of public funding, then “strong encouragement” and suggested contract language [between authors and journals] are just about second best. We’ll see how well it works in practice, especially if some publishers refuse to sign the new contract language and strongly encourage authors to take the opposite course and either deposit as late as possible or never deposit at all…

There is dangerous potential in this policy to create painful and career-jeopardizing dilemmas for researchers who will have to choose between snubbing their funder and snubbing their publisher. A simple mandate [by NIH] would not only deliver more open-access content to the public, but spare authors this dilemma.

We should be grateful that a significant new precedent – open-access publishing for federally funded research – has been established. (The NIH plan will take effect May 2.) But how effectively and rapidly it will be implemented remain open questions. The House of Representatives is on record in support of the stronger NIH plan (mandatory open-access and a permissible delay of six months). We can apply more pressure on Congress and NIH through letters to House members, comments by stakeholders to the NIH (PublicAccess@nih.gov) and support for the Alliance for Taxpayer Access.

And here’s a timely push for open access publishing – Professor Lawrence Lessig announced today he would no longer publish in any law journal that requires him to forfeit his copyright as a condition of publication. He knows of only one law journal that may, soon, be able to publish him, under a Creative Commons license. Will others follow?