The Politicians Weigh In 

Science journals battle an NIH proposal that calls for free access to federally funded research.

In the battle with big business over access to publicly funded research articles, Berkeley scientist Michael Eisen and his Public Library of Science have some unlikely allies: conservative Republicans. Meanwhile, representing the publishing industry against government intervention is Pat Schroeder, a former liberal congresswoman.

Earlier this month, the National Institutes of Health, citing the skyrocketing costs of journal subscriptions, announced its intention to make all NIH-funded research articles freely available to the public six months after publication. The articles would be posted on the National Library of Medicine's Internet repository, PubMed Central (PubMedCentral.nih.gov), launched by PLoS cofounder Harold Varmus when he headed the NIH under President Clinton.

The plan faces fierce opposition from the Association of American Publishers (AAP), a trade group that Schroeder serves as president. Its members, which include both commercial and nonprofit journal publishers, have complained it could put them out of business because they would lose thousands of subscribers.

But industry critics have hailed the move as a welcome change. Among them are patients' rights groups such as the Genetic Alliance, which represents people with inherited conditions. In a letter to a House subcommittee, alliance president Sharon Terry wrote: "This access is critical for the thousands [with] rare diseases -- clinicians are unable to keep up with information on 6,000 rare diseases, and patients must be the bridge to new knowledge."

The new NIH policy got off the ground with the help of two conservative congressmen, Ralph Regula of Ohio and Ernie Istook of Oklahoma, who inserted language championing public access into an appropriations report in May. "The people who are so much against socialized medicine are all for socialized publishing," chides Marc Brodsky, executive council chair of the AAP's division of professional and scholarly publishing.

Open-access advocate Eisen doesn't view this fight as an instance of strange bedfellows. Underlying the whole debate, he notes, is a taxpayers' rights issue. The NIH is the largest backer of biomedical research in the world; each year it funds $24.6 billion in basic research that produces approximately sixty thousand research articles. The papers are typically copyrighted by journal publishers, who then turn around and charge subscription fees that can run tens of thousands of dollars, while nonsubscribers can be charged as much as thirty dollars to download a single article. "I think it is a very simple proposition," Regula said on the House floor this month. "NIH, or the taxpayer, pays for the research, even pays for the journals, and should be able to share the results with the taxpaying public. Our investment in research is not well served by a process that limits taxpayer access instead of expanding it."

The plan's foes say the debate has been mislabeled as a public-access issue. They point out that many publishers, such as the New England Journal of Medicine, already make their articles public after six months. In June, Elsevier, the world's largest academic publisher, announced that it would start allowing authors to post full-text versions of their articles on their own personal or institutional Web sites -- a concession that would increase public access, but with nowhere near the searchability and convenience of a central database such as PubMed Central.

Despite the trend toward increased access, Brodsky says he and other publishers don't want the government to make the rules. "There's more information available on the Web, more being used now, and more being read than ever before in history, and some people have to pay for it, and for some libraries there's a financial drain," he says. "But we're evolving a market system that's working extremely well. And now we're going to substitute a system where the government says, 'Well, we're going to put these journals at economic risk because the government is going to try to put these things up for free. '"

And why shouldn't it, Eisen retorts. "Does Brodsky really think that the public have no right to expect access to work they funded?" the researcher says. "That scientists are simply entitled to government funding without any responsibility to the public that supports them?"

Brodsky points out that the government subsidizes other commercial activities where the public is charged for something value-added. "For example," he says, "when we get medical advances that come out of NIH-funded research, we have to pay for the drugs."

The "value-added" in this case would include the peer-review process by which scholars vet submissions to make sure the work that appears in a given journal is sound and rigorous. The NIH proposal would require that the peer-reviewed, published version be posted to PubMed Central. However, as Eisen and others point out, scientists usually do peer-review for free.

Susan Spilka, communications director for John Wiley & Sons, one of the largest commercial journal publishers, says the high subscription costs cited by the NIH need to be put into a broader context. With the Internet, institutions now have access to hundreds of titles, which are easier to access than ever, she argues, and prices have actually gone down on a per-access basis. "What's really being considered by [the NIH] is not a question of access, but of who should pay for the system," she says.

Spilka and other critics say the government is effectively biasing the system to use the PLoS business model in which authors pay a $1,500 publication fee -- most likely covered by government grants -- after which, upon publication, their articles become freely available to the online public. This author-pays model, they say, is largely untested. They point out that ultimate costs to authors and thus government funders might actually be a lot more than $1,500, since PLoS is buoyed by a $9 million foundation grant. "It may work," Brodsky says of PLoS. "It's been around for almost a year; we'll see. The other journals have been around for a hundred years and they seem to be working very well."

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