Panel Calls on U.S. Agencies to Require Free Access to Research Papers

A diverse group of scientific publishers, librarians, and university officials has come together to endorse a once-controversial idea: that all federal research agencies should require that papers published by the investigators they support be made freely available to the public as soon as possible.

Although the National Institutes of Health now has such a policy, it came only after years of debate and resistance from publishers worried that subscriptions would dry up if people could download papers for free. But since the NIH requirement kicked in in April 2008—including a 12-month delay for mandatory release—biomedical journals have survived. Proponents of this so-called public access approach have been clamoring for other agencies to follow NIH’s lead. Last summer, the House of Representatives science committee and the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP) convened a roundtable of 14 publishers, university leaders, librarians, and other experts to seek common ground on expanding free access to journal articles. The group was chaired by John Vaughn, executive vice president of the Association of American Universities.

In its report, the panel urges that each research agency "expeditiously but carefully develop and implement an explicit public access policy that brings about free public access to the results of the research that it funds as soon as possible after those results have been published in a peer-reviewed journal." However, the report doesn't specify whether agencies should set up a central archive of full-text papers like NIH's PubMedCentral or rely on other options, such as university repositories. The panelists also noted that the "embargo," or delay between when a paper is published and when it becomes free, might need to be extended beyond the NIH 12-month rule for some fields in which papers hold their value for longer, particularly social sciences and humanities.

Two panelists on opposite ends of the debate declined to endorse the report's conclusions. Y. S. Chi, a vice chair at Elsevier, the giant commercial publisher, felt the report was "overly prescriptive" and "supports an overly expansive role of government." And Mark Patterson, director of publishing at the Public Library of Science, faults the report because it "stops far short of recognizing and endorsing" PLoS's "open access" model, in which authors pay a fee so that their papers are free from the moment they're published.

Despite such objections, the White House seems determined to move ahead. For the past month, OSTP has been holding an online forum on whether and how to extend NIH's model to more agencies. According to OSTP life sciences assistant director Diane DiEuliis, one option being considered is an executive order or memo that would set out "minimum standards" but "give agencies flexibility to create custom plans."