Open access mandate coming to the NIH
SPARC Open Access Newsletter, issue #99
July 2, 2006
by Peter Suber
The U.S. National Institutes of Health (NIH), the largest non-military research funder in the world, is one step closer to an OA mandate.  In the Appropriations Bill for fiscal 2007, the U.S. House Appropriations Committee directs the NIH to adopt an OA mandate, strengthening its current policy which only requests and encourages OA.  The bill was adopted by the committee and sent to the full House on June 15, 2006.

The next step is for the full House to vote on the bill and then for the Senate to vote on its own appropriations bill.  If the House and Senate bills differ, then the differences will be resolved by a conference committee --which everyone hopes will take place before the new fiscal year begins on October 1.  The language of the House bill won't be online until the full House votes.  I'll keep you posted.

While the House bill calls for an OA mandate, it does not ask the NIH to shorten the embargo from the 12 months now allowed.  Friends of OA are still working to cap the embargo at six months, in both the House and the Senate, but this will be harder than converting the request to a requirement.  Publishers have signalled their willingness to live with a mandate if the embargo is not shortened, and NIH Director Zerhouni has done the same.  But even if we can't change the embargo, we move forward on one front rather than two, and we move backwards on none.  And the mandate itself will give an extraordinary boost to the worldwide collection of peer-reviewed OA literature.  Currently, only 3.8% of NIH grantees comply with the OA request.  After a mandate, this should rise to nearly 100%  --"nearly" because every machine has its friction.  That's the difference between 2,470 articles/year and 65,000 articles/year.

The long embargo would be easier to live with if the NIH adopted a dual deposit/release policy, requiring deposit of full-text and metadata immediately upon publication, requiring immediate OA for the metadata, and postponing OA for the full-text until the end of the embargo period.  The House bill does not stipulate this two-step procedure --deposit at one time, release at another--, but neither does it rule it out.  When the NIH eventually implements a mandate, this method will benefit the agency and researchers without harming publishers.

The House bill is the culmination of a long effort the strengthen the NIH policy, starting even before the policy took effect on May 2, 2005.  The first fruit of the effort became public on November 15, 2005, when the agency's own Public Access Working Group recommended that the request for public access be strengthened to a requirement and that the permissible delay be shortened from 12 months to six.  On February 8, 2006, the NLM Board of Regents endorsed the November 2005 recommendations of the Public Access Working Group.   And of course both the CURES Act (introduced December 7, 2005) and the Federal Research Public Access Act (FRPAA, introduced May 2, 2006) mandate OA to a wide range of federal agencies, including the NIH.  But the House action in June is the most critical to date.  The recommendations from the Working Group and Board of Regents were merely advisory.  CURES and FRPAA are still pending.  The language in the new House bill, if adopted by the House and Senate, would be binding.

Of course it would have been better for the NIH policy to be strong and effective from the start, and we should never forget that Congress asked for a mandate in its July 2004 appropriations bill.  The 14 months under the policy so far have given us OA to 3,000 research articles that we wouldn't have had without a policy.  However, we'd have OA to *26 times* as many articles if the policy had been a mandate from the start. 

In the spirit of learning from experience and remaining constructive, let's use the slow start at the NIH to educate funding agencies around the world that requests and exhortations don't work.  At the same time, let's use the fast and effective start of the Wellcome Trust's OA policy to spread the word that mandates do work.  Recent actions by England's CCLRC and France's CNRS show that these lessons still need to be learned (more on the CCLRC and CNRS elsewhere in this issue). 

Most funding agencies already get the logic of OA:  if research is worth funding, then it's worth sharing with everyone who can make use of it.  Now it's time to get the logic of implementing OA:  if OA is worth setting as a goal, then it's worth mandating so that we actually reach the goal.

Gene Russo, Congress pushes plan to make papers free, Nature, June 22, 2006.

Aliya Sternstein, House appropriation mandates NIH public access policy, Federal Computer Week, June 19, 2006.

Anne Walters, House Committee Would Require Open Access to NIH-Backed Research, Chronicle of Higher Education, June 19, 2006.

Jocelyn Kaiser, NIH gets off to a slow start, Science Magazine, June 16, 2006.

Anon., House Appropriations Committee to Require OA for NIH Funded Research, Kairosnews, June 16, 2006.

The Alliance for Taxpayer Access issued a press release supporting the House action on June 15, 2006.


As long as I'm writing about Congress, here are a few other items.

* There was a lot of news and comment on FRPAA in June (see the top stories below) but no new Congressional action.  The bill is still under consideration by the Senate Committee on Homeland Security & Governmental Affairs, chaired by Senator Susan Collins (R-ME). 

* In June we learned about Senator John McCain's efforts to ensure the open dissemination of scientific results by government scientists.  McCain wants to protect the freedom of government-employed scientists to report the results of their research without interference from political appointees with a contrary religious or political agenda.  McCain asked the National Science Board (NSB) to study the problem and it found (from its May 2006 letter to McCain) "no consistent Federal policy regarding the dissemination of research results by Federal employees."  As a result, McCain added an amendment to the American Innovation and Competitiveness Act of 2006 (S.2802) calling on the Director of the Office of Science and Technology Policy to "develop and issue an overarching set of principles...[to] encourage the open exchange of data and results of research by Federal agency scientists...."  While the bill doesn't specifically call for OA, the ultimate remedy could include OA.  For example, FRPAA would make an excellent foundation for a "consistent Federal policy regarding the dissemination of research results by Federal employees."  More details in my blog for June 6, 2006.

Andrew Revkin, New York Times, June 8, 2006.

Ted Agre, Panel faults U.S. science policy, The Scientist, June 6, 2006.

The NSB letter to Sen. McCain (May 10, 2006).

McCain's amendment to the American Innovation and Competitiveness Act of 2006 (S 2802).

* Finally, I can't resist giving some extra publicity to an excellent idea by John Udell.  Mandating OA to publicly-funded research is necessary and good, but it won't touch the large body of privately-funded research.  How can we nudge that closer to OA?  Udell proposes tax breaks for private companies that provide OA to their research.  He doesn't give examples, but imagine this policy applied to drug companies, oil companies, mining and materials companies, and computer and tech companies.  Even with tax breaks, some would see greater profit in cloaking their research than in sharing it.  But some would open it up, and every little bit helps.  The dip in government revenue would almost certainly be offset by the social and economic benefits of accelerated research and development, including new tax revenue.


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