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The National Institutes of Health Open Access Mandate: Public Access for Public Funding

Clancy Ratliff, University of Louisiana at Lafayette

In December 2007, President Bush signed into law the NIH Open Access policy, which concretized what had been an agenda item in the open access movement for over three years. This policy requires scholars who receive NIH funding for their research to submit copies of publications based on that research to PubMed Central, an open access repository. They must do this within 12 months of the article’s publication in a professional journal or other scholarly venue. In the following report, I will describe the timeline and reasons for the policy, how the policy works, and its implications for research in disciplines other than the medical sciences, including rhetoric and composition.

Original Proposal and Rationale for Open Access to NIH-Funded Research

What is now the open access mandate was for over two years prior only voluntary. The original policy was proposed in 2004 by the House Appropriations Committee and sponsored by Ralph Regula, a Democratic congressional representative from Ohio. A report filed by the Committee in July 2004 explains the need for an open access policy (emphasis mine):

The Committee is very concerned that there is insufficient public access to reports and data resulting from NIH-funded research. This situation, which has been exacerbated by the dramatic rise in scientific journal subscription prices, is contrary to the best interests of the U.S. taxpayers who paid for this research. The Committee is aware of a proposal to make the complete text of articles and supplemental materials generated by NIH-funded research available on PubMed Central (PMC), the digital library maintained by the National Library of Medicine (NLM).

The problem of subscription rates for scholarly journals and the public interest argument come directly from open access rhetoric, including positions taken by members of the CCCC Intellectual Property Caucus. Arguing from the taxpayers’ interest in this context also sets an important precedent for government-funded research in other disciplines. It is unclear exactly why such an open access policy would originate in research in the health sciences, but one obvious speculation is the need, from a public health standpoint, to share research results quickly and inexpensively in the service of eradicating chronic conditions and infectious disease. Another is the relationship between researchers in the health sciences and pharmaceutical companies, which can be complex and necessitate a distancing move and a claim of the research by the public. The July 2004 report goes on to recommend:

The Committee supports this proposal and recommends that NIH develop a policy, to apply from FY 2005 forward, requiring that a complete electronic copy of any manuscript reporting work supported by NIH grants or contracts be provided to PMC upon acceptance of the manuscript for publication in any scientific journal listed in the NLM’s PubMed directory.

The proposed policy continued to gain ground, and in February of 2005, the NIH issued a report announcing details of the policy. They gave the following reasons as an explanation of the need for an open access initiative (“Policy on Enhancing Public Access”):

The Policy is intended to: 1) create a stable archive of peer-reviewed research publications resulting from NIH-funded research to ensure the permanent preservation of these vital published research findings; 2) secure a searchable compendium of these peer-reviewed research publications that NIH and its awardees can use to manage more efficiently and to understand better their research portfolios, monitor scientific productivity, and ultimately, help set research priorities; and 3) make published results of NIH-funded research more readily accessible to the public, health care providers, educators, and scientists.”

These reasons demonstrate the potential of an open access repository, especially an organized and searchable one, to provide an aerial view of the history and evolution of a discipline for any interested reader. In rhetoric and composition, a similar (though not open access) effort is Collin Brooke and Derek Mueller’s transformation of CCC Online into a dynamic, categorized, searchable archive.

In addition to laying out the intentions of the policy, the February 2005 report addressed several objections to it, including its perceived incompatibility with copyright law and its conflict with the market interest, particularly that of journal publishers. The NIH responded to these criticisms by citing the government purpose license, which applies generally to work by government contractors and allows government agencies some rights to copyrighted or patented work. They also pointed out one of the policy’s provisions, which states that authors may wait up to twelve months to post their articles to PubMed Central. The holding period is a concession for journal publishers to address the objection that they may lose subscriptions as a result of the policy.

Starting in 2005, per the Appropriation Committee’s recommendation, recipients of NIH funding were encouraged — but not required — to submit their publications to PubMed Central, a government repository of open-access medical research publications. According to Peter Suber, a senior researcher at the Scholarly Publishing and Academic Resources Coalition (SPARC),  compliance rates were low under the voluntary system: in February 2006, the rate was below 4% (“NIH FAQ”). Throughout 2006 and most of 2007, the House and the Senate argued over specific matters related to language in the bill and budgetary concerns, as  PubMed Central is part of the NIH budget, and the costs rise with the number of submissions and the heft of repository use (“SPARC Open Access Newsletter, August 2007”). After passing in the House and the Senate, President Bush signed the open access policy into law on December 26, 2007, the language of which states:

The Director of the National Institutes of Health shall require that all investigators funded by the NIH submit or have submitted for them to the National Library of Medicine’s PubMed Central an electronic version of their final, peer-reviewed manuscripts upon acceptance for publication to be made publicly available no later than 12 months after the official date of publication: Provided, That the NIH shall implement the public access policy in a manner consistent with copyright law.

While open access advocates have expressed disappointment that the “embargo period” is not shorter than twelve months, most agree that the NIH’s policy is progressive and moves research in general closer to the public interest. The policy will help researchers in the health sciences share their research on a global scale and will, ideally, enable innovation. It will go into effect on April 7, 2008.

Implications for Research in Other Fields, Including Rhetoric and Composition

Rhetoric and composition studies are not fields that are historically well funded by government agencies such as NIH (a possible exception being technical communication), but the NIH Open Access Mandate, with its driving argument as the issue of fairness and the public interest – the public funded it, so the public should have access to it – has two key implications for research in the sciences, social sciences, and humanities, including rhetoric and composition:

  1. Other government funding organizations (National Science Foundation, National Endowment for the Arts, National Endowment for the Humanities, Dept. of Ed.) may decide to implement similar policies. Open access advocacy will be necessary for this effort, and publishers will lobby against it, but a precedent has been set nonetheless. The Alliance for Taxpayer Access, an alliance of 84 different libraries and advocacy groups for sufferers of specific diseases such as cystic fibrosis and AIDS, will continue with SPARC to push for open access to all government-funded research. I recommend that members of the CCCC IP Caucus create awareness of this organization on our individual campuses and encourage our libraries to join the ATA.
  2. This policy may encourage similar policies at the state or university level, such as ScholarWorks at the University of Kansas. Faculty at the University of Kansas, starting in March 2005, have been encouraged to submit their research to ScholarWorks on the grounds that doing so will increase its visibility and cause it to be cited more often, and administration at KU has provided faculty with language to use when requesting publishers’ permission to post work to ScholarWorks (“Resolution on Access”). The University of California system and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology also have such repositories.
Works Cited

Policy on Enhancing Public Access to Archived Publications Resulting from NIH-Funded Research.

Public Access Frequently Asked Questions.

Suber, Peter. “NIH Public-Access Policy Frequently Asked Questions.”

Suber, Peter. “OA mandate at NIH now law.”

Suber, Peter. “Welcome to the SPARC Open Access Newsletter, issue #112.” 2 Aug 2007. 6 Feb 2008.

Suber, Peter. “Welcome to the SPARC Open Access Newsletter, issue #115.” 2 Nov 2007. 6 Feb 2008.

Suber, Peter. “Welcome to the SPARC Open Access Newsletter, issue #116 .” 2 Dec 2007. 6 Feb 2008.

KU: About KU ScholarWorks. 6 Feb 2008

Resolution on Access to Scholarly Information Passed by the KU University Council.

PubMed Central Homepage. 6 Feb 2008


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