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Government, publishers fight over access to medical research

The National Institutes of Health wants to post government-funded medical research for free on the Internet. But the companies that publish the research are putting up a fight. Is this another "Fleecing of America?" NBC's Tom Costello reports.

Julia Blixrud knows her way around scientific libraries and databases. For years, she has been on a nationwide crusade to make medical research, paid for by taxpayers, availableto taxpayers.

"It's hard to get at that research because it's only available in high cost, or difficult-to-obtain scholarly journals," says Blixrud, the assistant executive director of external relations at the Association of Research Libraries.

While the government spends $28 billion dollars of taxpayer money each year for research into everything from cancer to diabetes to Alzheimer's disease, the findings are usually published in for-profit journals and subscription fees have been skyrocketing.

Critics say taxpayers are being fleeced.

"We should have access to it so we can go ahead and advance that medical research that's so critical to the healthcare of the people in this country," says Karen Cole, director of the University of Kansas Medical Library.

There are nearly 4,000 medical research publications with subscription fees ranging from a couple hundred dollars to $18,000 for brain research. With universities cutting back on what they buy, critics say much research never gets to the scientists and patients who need it most.

That's why NIH Director Elias Zerhouni is moving to put all NIH-fundedresearch online — for free.

"I have a duty to the public," says Zerhouni. "And if you look at the number of papers published at NIH — 50 to 60,000 papers a year — the cost of that is supported by the public."

But the publishers are opposed — saying theyadd critical scientific review and editing expertise and that some journals could be forced out of business.  

"There's no free lunch," says Dr. Marc Brodsky with the Association of American Publishers. "Somebody has to pay for the distribution of information."

The NIH compromise: Give publishers six months of exclusivity, then make the research free to all.

But that's little help to Julia Blixrud, who learned last April that she had breast cancer and had to pay for access to the best research. Julia is now recovering from a mastectomy and reading all the research she can afford.