Cutting-edge science and long-pondered questions explained in plain English. Bad science gutted. Great science extolled.

Saturday, September 13, 2008

Congress Debates Silencing NIH

For the last couple years, the number of scientific papers accessible to the public for free has been steadily rising because NIH has required (or at least actively solicited) grantees to allow free access to grant-supported papers one year after their initial publication.

This access is crucial for journalists and for citizen scientists who want to read the primary literature and judge results on their merit rather than relying on brief abstracts. Most researchers have little access outside of their narrow field. For instance, a virologist might have subscriptions to major virology journals but might have a hard time gaining access to a paper in a cell or molecular biology journal, even though that paper might be quite similar to what s/he is working on.

The free access of information, especially information based on research funded by taxpayer money, is essential to research and to society. I hope Congress does not stymie the NIH's gallant attempt to spread knowledge.

Original article from Science Magazine:

Some members of Congress would like to overturn a controversial new policy
that requires scientists with grants from the U.S. National Institutes of Health
(NIH) to post their papers in a free online database. Today, an important House
committee grilled NIH about the policy and floated a proposal that scientific
publishers say is needed to protect their products.

Three years ago, NIH began asking grantees to send the agency a copy of their accepted, peer-reviewed papers so that it can make them freely accessible in its PubMed Central archive within 12 months after they are published. But compliance was so poor that proponents of the idea persuaded the House and Senate panels that set NIH's budget to tell the agency to make the policy mandatory (ScienceNOW,
11 January).

NIH says compliance has risen to 56%, or about 3300 papers
submitted each month, since the rule took effect in April. (The agency could
potentially suspend the grant of an investigator who ignores the policy but is
so far relying on less punitive measures, such as reminders). Meanwhile, some
commercial and society publishers, such as the American Physiological Society
(APS), have complained that the policy infringes on their copyrights and will
put them out of business by cutting into their subscription base.

Now the
publishers have found allies on the powerful House Judiciary Committee, chaired
by Representative John Conyers (D–MI). At a 2-hour hearing of the Subcommittee
on Courts, the Internet, and Intellectual Property, Conyers and others
questioned the need for the policy when the public can already obtain the papers
through a subscription or at a library. Moreover, most journals make their
content free after 12 months.

NIH Director Elias Zerhouni defended the
policy. He argued that PubMed Central is enhancing the papers by linking to
molecular databases and other papers. "The real value is the connectivity,"
Zerhouni said. He also claimed that "there is no evidence that this has been
harmful" to publishers. In response, APS Executive Director Martin Frank, whose
society publishes 14 journals, disagrees, telling Science that some journal
editors believe the new policy is leading to "fewer eyeballs coming to their

A bill introduced today by Conyers and two other members would bar
any federal agency from requiring "the transfer or license" to the government of
a paper that has been produced in part with nongovernment funds--a reference to
the publisher's costs for peer review and production. The Fair Copyright in
Research Works Act (HR 6845) would mean that neither NIH nor any other federal
agency could require grantees to submit accepted papers to a free archive.

There is no companion bill in the Senate, and Congress is not expected to
act on the legislation before it adjourns later this month. Jonathan Band, a
Washington, D.C., attorney who represents the American Library Association,
which favors open access, says the bill's sweeping provisions are a fatal flaw.
"It goes far beyond the NIH policy. It limits a lot of what the federal
government can do," he says. But the keen interest the House Judiciary Committee
showed today in the topic suggests that the debate is not over.

TK Kenyon,
Author of RABID and CALLOUS: Two novels about science, faith, and humanity, with some sex and murder.