Political momentum is growing for a change in federal policy that would require government-funded health researchers to make the results of their work freely available on the Internet.
Advocates say taxpayers should not have to pay hundreds of dollars for subscriptions to scientific journals to see the results of research they already have paid for. Many journals charge $35 or more just to see one article — a cost that can snowball as patients seek the latest information about their illnesses.
Publishers have successfully fought the "public access" movement for years, saying the approach threatens their subscription base and would undercut their roles as peer reviewers and archivists of scientific knowledge.
But the battle lines shifted last month when a National Institutes of Health report revealed that a compromise policy enacted last spring — in which NIH-funded scientists were encouraged but not required to post their findings on the Internet — has been a flop. Less than 4 percent filled out the online form to make their results available for public viewing.
Now a key federal advisory committee has recommended that scientists who receive NIH grants be required to post their results within six months of publication. And the Senate is considering legislation that would mandate such disclosures for an even broader array of federally funded scientists.
"Given the exponential growth in new information, and how quickly new information becomes old information, it is very important that everybody ... gets reasonably timely access to new research," said Thomas Detre, an emeritus vice chancellor at the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center. He is chairman of the Board of Regents of the National Library of Medicine, which manages a publicly accessible database of medical research called PubMed Central.
The new push has opponents scrambling.
"We think it is too early to jump into a mandatory system," said James Pringle of the Publishing Research Consortium, a loose-knit group created to fight the public-access movement.
It is not just profit-hungry publishers who object to mandatory public access, opponents emphasize. Some nonprofit scientific and professional societies fear that without the income they receive from their research journals they will no longer be able to finance their educational and training programs.
"We make money off our journals, but it all goes back to enhance publishing and to enhance the needs of our scientific community," said Martin Frank, executive director of the Bethesda-based American Physiological Society, which publishes 14 journals. The society runs an award-winning mentoring program for minority scientists and educational programs for elementary schools and high schools.
But advocates point to the growing number of journals that have adopted business plans that allow them to offer their contents free of charge. Some charge fees to researchers for publishing their work instead of charging for subscriptions or page views. Researchers can pay the fees with grant money — potentially cost-neutral for the government, advocates say, and agencies could save some of the millions of dollars they spend on journal subscriptions for university libraries.
The push for public access got a boost last month when the NIH, responding to congressional inquiries, released a progress report on the voluntary program that began in May. Under that program — a compromise between advocates and publishers, crafted by agency Director Elias Zerhouni — NIH-funded scientists whose research had been accepted by a journal were encouraged to display their final manuscripts on PubMed Central within a year of publication.
By submitting a final draft and not the published article, researchers could steer clear of legal problems arising from the fact that journals own the copyrights to their published material.
The report concluded that from May 1 to Dec. 31, the policy prompted the submission of 1,636 articles to PubMed — or 3.8 percent of the 43,000 relevant articles published during that interval. That is "not acceptable," said program coordinator Norka Ruiz Bravo, NIH's deputy director for extramural research. "We need to change something, but what that something is is not clear yet."
Others at NIH say the answer is clear to them. A National Library of Medicine working group concluded last November that scientists are well aware of the voluntary program — the NIH has sent multiple e-mails to grant recipients, published a pamphlet and posted details on the Web — and that the online submission system works well. The best way to boost compliance, a majority of the group concluded, is to make it mandatory.
In February, the library's Board of Regents made a formal recommendation to Zerhouni that grant recipients be required to post their papers within six months after publication — with some "flexibility" for infrequently published journals that might be hurt by free access to their contents within six months.
Ruiz Bravo said the agency is considering the recommendation, but the publishing consortium is fighting back with data of its own. The group recently commissioned a survey of 1,128 scientists. It concluded that although 85 percent of scientists "have heard of" NIH's public access effort, only 18 percent know "a lot" or "quite a lot" about it. That suggests NIH could still do more to promote the voluntary policy, Pringle said.
Even some who generally support public access want more time to make the voluntary system work, saying the system for posting articles is cumbersome and could harm consumers because it posts versions that have not been fully fact-checked by journal editors.
Public-access advocates say opponents are simply stalling.
"It has to be mandatory," said Rich Roberts, chief scientific officer of New England BioLabs in Ipswich, Mass. — one of many who think that most scientists will not get around to posting their work unless they are told they must.
Some in Congress appear to agree. After years of asking NIH to encourage public access, Sens. Joseph I. Lieberman (D-Conn.) and Thad Cochran (R-Miss.) upped the ante in December by introducing the American Center for Cures Act. It would require recipients of grants -- not only from the NIH but also from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality — to post their final manuscripts within six months after publication, or risk losing funding.
That is an option that makes publishers cringe. But it could get worse.
A spokesman for Sen. John Cornyn (R-Tex.) said last week that the senator has been mulling over broader language that would compel public disclosure of research findings from an even greater number of federal agencies, including the Environmental Protection Agency and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.
With that option looming, the National Library of Medicine's recommendation — which applies only to NIH-funded research — could start to look good to publishers.