Monday, April 21, 2008

How the Free Access Initiative Came About

Today's editorial in the Hindu lauds the Free Publishing Initiative recently endorsed by the U.S.Congress that mandates all research funded by the National Institute of Health (NIH) to be made freely accessible within one year of their publication. The item is a little dated as the Act was actually passed in December 2007. There are also several errors in its potrayal of this feature.

Though subscription is a source of revenue for journals, the apprehension that free online access would hurt their bottomline is misplaced; the Act is applicable only to papers arising from NIH-funding. In fact, a number of publishers have already agreed to make published articles available to PubMed Central directly. It is commendable that the NIH did not allow commercial interests of publishers to override the merits of free dissemination of information as an essential requirement for scientific advance. The NIH has resolved the contentious issue of copyrights that was dogging free access. By making the authors responsible for working out a copyrights transfer agreement with the publishers that allows them to comply with the policy, it has ensured greater compliance.

Actually the NIH with a $29 billion budget is the eight hundred pound gorilla in the research funding business. The majority of academic research is funded through its grants and it is indeed the chief source of federal money sustaining health-related research in major universities all across the United States (hence all the heartburn when President Bush passed an Executive Order a few years ago refusing to fund the major part of Stem Cell research). It is therefore no surprise that publications from NIH grants have also been the lifeblood of most scientific journals - the notion that their bottomline would not be hurt is quite mistaken. Indeed, this initiative has been around at least since 2004; it took this long to pass because the Journals lobbied strongly against it so as to keep their source of revenue intact. It is at their insistence that the current compromise has been worked out allowing free access only after a period of 12 months. Since most researchers are interested in the latest inventions/discoveries, the most recent articles are, not surprisingly, in the greatest demand. That would remain the case even now forcing research institutions to continue their subscriptions of all these journals.

The Hindu says that 'it is commendable that the NIH did not allow commercial interests of publishers to override the merits of free dissemination of information as an essential requirement of scientific advance'. Is this true? First of all, the NIH is only an agency under the federal government and is bound by law to implement legislation enacted by Congress. The question of the NIH allowing/disallowing anything does not therefore arise. Secondly, this was not some altruistic idea that suddenly dawned on Congress. Universities faced with budget cuts, other freestanding research institutions and the pharmaceutical industry, all of which deal with scientific research have seen their journal subscription costs burgeoning over the last decade as more money has poured into the field, newer and more specialized areas have emerged and journals have diversified and upgraded themselves partly in response to these changes and partly to stay ahead of the competition. These institutions have well-entrenched lobbies on Capitol Hill that steadily pushed this idea of free publication of taxpayer-funded research, a powerful notion that was strongly opposed by the Scientific Journal lobby. In other words, this was like any other political battle with commercial interests of both sides playing a part.

It is a good thing that the NIH has worked out the regulations necessary to implement this law. But the Hindu is quite mistaken in its understanding of how it came about.

1 comment:

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