February 5, 2012

Public Access to Public Research: A Reversal of Open Access?

The National Institutes of Health (the leading provider of federal funding for biomedical research) has operated under a Public Access policy for about 4 years. This policy requires that any peer-reviewed article which has been partially or wholly supported by NIH be made available to the general public. This is a condition of receiving an NIH grant. This policy followed ongoing controversy and activism over the traditional publication of publicly-funded research in private sector, peer-reviewed journals (making content harder to get for the general public, and expensive for libraries to carry).  So the NIH policy responded to demands for allowing the public to read about the research that it funded.  This is accomplished with the PubMed online database ("the NIH digital archive of full-text, peer-reviewed journal articles") which makes this research available (an archive of over 2 million articles). Now comes a surprising bill introduced in Congress that would reverse this policy – effectively limiting public access to taxpayer-funded research.  HR 3699, the Research Works Act, introduced by, among others, Rep. Carolyn Maloney of New York, would allow private publishers to block open access of scientific publications. The bill is favored by the large private scientific publishing houses. But pushback is strong, with open letters from academics and opposition from advocates who have fought to open up public research to the public. In the age of increasingly open and online data availability, it’s hard to imagine legislation that turns the clock back and reprivatizes public research. Rep. Maloney is a strong supporter of publicly-funded medical research; one hopes that her legislative efforts don’t result in keeping that research out of public view.

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