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NIH Public Access Plan: Laudable Goal, Misguided Approach
American Physiological Society Analysis

The NIH public access plan is intended to expand public access to the scientific literature. However, it could have the unintended consequence of reducing the availability of that literature because it entails practices that may be economically unsound for many journals. NIH seeks to impose a “one-size-fits-all” solution, whereas the publishers of the scientific literature are a large and disparate group. Furthermore, many publishers already provide the public with some form of free access to their content.

Although the American Physiological Society (APS) supports the principle of public access, the NIH approach is a mallet rather than a scalpel. It is likely to harm publishers, which will in turn harm the dissemination of science through the literature.

The NIH has offered three rationales for the its proposal to request that NIH-funded researchers deposit a copy of their accepted manuscripts in PubMed Central, where they will be made freely accessible to the public 6 months after publication. Those rationales include the need to (1) provide the public with access to the science the agency funds; (2) improve the agency’s ability to manage its research portfolio, and (3) create an archive of the results of NIH funded research.

The APS responses to these rationales are as follows:

(1)        Since publishers have the responsibility for the financial viability of journals, they ought to make the determination when to grant access to content.

(2)        Portfolio management is an internal function that should not involve public access.

(3)        NIH has not presented compelling evidence why it should create an additional biomedical research archive, especially when Society publishers have amply demonstrated their commitment not only to archive their journals but also to move into the electronic age by making the content of print journals electronically accessible.

An additional point of concern is the potential cost of this ambitious proposal.

Since 2000, the American Physiological Society has provided free access to back issues of its journals after a 12-month embargo period. Free access on a timetable consistent with a publisher’s cost-recovery requirements is one of the basic tenets of the DC Principles of Free Access to Science (http://www.dcprinciples.org). The DC Principles coalition currently includes 57 not-for-profit publishers who publish 125 journals. The DC Principles Coalition also supports a variety of measures to make content available on an expedited basis for patients and others who have compelling needs.

NIH officials have asserted that between 30-40% of biomedical science articles published each year are derived from NIH-funded research. These relatively low percentages are used to support the claim that allowing public access to accepted manuscripts after 6 months will not have undue economic impact on journal revenues since only a minority of articles will be subject to the NIH policy. Consequently, NIH assumes that subscriptions and therefore advertising income will be unaffected by its proposed policy.

However, these assumptions do not hold true across all journals, and journals that publish basic rather than clinical research are likely to have a higher percentage of NIH-funded manuscripts. More to the point, these assumptions do not hold true for the APS journals. In the first place, the APS journals attract only a trivial amount of advertising revenue. Secondly, 50% of the articles published in APS journals in 2003 were based upon NIH-funded research. Furthermore, utilization patterns for physiology research are such that many articles are cited 12 months or more after publication. Given that the APS already makes back issues free after 12 months, there is good reason to fear that an NIH requirement to make half our content free after 6 months will lead to a drop-off in subscriptions.

In addition to the harm it may cause to journals, it is also worth noting that the NIH plan will do little to solve the public access problem. If only 30-40% of research is funded by the NIH, then the remaining 60-70% will remain out of reach to the public.

Furthermore, the NIH plan would have negative impacts on scientists’ opportunities to publish their work. Some journals might cease publication, while others might have to increase author fees to make up for lost subscription revenue. According to its September 17, 2004 Federal Register notice http://www.nih.gov/about/publicaccess/federalregister.pdf, NIH “will carefully monitor requested budgets and other costing information and would consider options to ensure that grantees’ budgets are not unduly affected by this policy.” NIH Deputy Director for Extramural Research Norka Ruiz Bravo told a September 27 meeting of the FASEB Science Policy Committee that NIH might impose a cap on how much grantees can spend on publication costs. This would have the effect of penalizing productive researchers and possibly delaying the publication of important findings.

NIH claims that it needs copies of manuscripts for portfolio management and as well as a permanent archive of the research it has funded. However, these should be purely internal functions. The APS rejects the notion that NIH should turn PubMed Central into a manuscript distribution center for the world. It is worth noting that MedLine, which offers a searchable database of the abstracts of 4,500 journals, is already widely recognized as an authoritative source of biomedical information. At present, some 3,000 of those journals – including the APS journals – already provide links from Medline abstracts to full articles on journal websites. This is the appropriate arrangement because the published article ought to be the version of record.

The APS is also concerned about the potential cost of this ambitious proposal. NIH officials have offered a succession of cost estimates without supporting details. The most recent estimate was $2 million in FY 2005 and $2-$4 million in subsequent years. There is skepticism among some publishers about how realistic those estimates are, which leads to the important question as to whether NIH ought to divert its increasingly scarce research dollars to this project.

Even beyond immediate consequences, there is reason to be concerned about the long-term implications of this proposal. Once a precedent for government intervention in scientific publishing has been established, publishers will be forced to change how they do business. They are likely to become more reluctant to make technological investments, to experiment with innovative policies, or to establish new journals. Their first duty will be to conserve journals that can survive, and they may jettison those that are marginal.

In conclusion:

§         The APS believes that the NIH plan represents a misguided approach that will harm journals without remedying the access problem that NIH has offered as the primary rationale for the proposal.

§         The APS further believes that its current policy of providing public access after 12 months through Medline while granting immediate free access to those with compelling needs fulfills the objectives of NIH proposal without compromising the financial sustainability of its APS journal program.

§         To the extent that the NIH policy has the foreseeable negative impacts described above, the net result will be better access to less science.