Bill Blocking NIH Public Access Policy Draws Fire

A little-noticed proposal in Congress to block a federal policy requiring free access to biomedical research papers went big time today, adding fuel to a long-running debate in the blogosphere.

Writing an opinion piece in The New York Times, biologist Michael Eisen attacks H.R. 3699, the Research Works Act. The bill, introduced last month by Representatives Darrell Issa (R-CA) and Carol Maloney (D-NY), would bar any agency from requiring that federally funded researchers post their peer-reviewed or edited papers on the Internet. The provision would invalidate the National Institutes of Health's 4-year-old "public access" policy, which requires that NIH grantees submit copies of their peer-reviewed manuscripts for posting in Pubmed Central.

Eisen, who is at the University of California, Berkeley, is a founder of the open-access Public Library of Science, which charges authors rather than subscribers for publication costs. He argues:

If the bill passes, to read the results of federally funded research, most Americans would have to buy access to individual articles at a cost of $15 or $30 apiece. In other words, taxpayers who already paid for the research would have to pay again to read the results.

He notes that Association of American Publishers (AAP) has praised the bill, arguing that publishers should be compensated for adding value to papers. (NIH officials have said previously that because the policy allows for a delay of up to 12 months before a paper is posted, publishers' investments are protected.) Eisen, however, says most of that value comes from volunteer peer-reviewers whose salaries are largely paid by taxpayers.

Congress has considered proposals in the past that would block the NIH policy; others would expand it to more agencies and shorten the delay to 6 months. A spokesperson for the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform, which Issa chairs and to which bill has been referred, said it has no immediate plans to mark up the bill.

One new twist is a proposal from Eisen that scientists ask societies to which they belong to drop their membership in AAP. Howard Garrison of the umbrella group Federation of American Societies for Experimental Biology (FASEB) in Bethesda, Maryland, which is among the groups Eisen lists, told ScienceInsider that the bill, which has led to "questions" from some society members, came as a surprise.

"Just because we're a member of a group doesn't mean we endorse everything they do or say," Garrison says. He says the societies that belong to FASEB have "a diversity of views" on NIH's public access policy but that most of them make journal content freely available within a year on their own Web sites.