House Science Panel Examines Public-Access Policies

The debate over public access got an airing before a House Science Committee panel today. Witnesses weighed in on whether the government should require research papers describing federally funded work be freely available.

The most-discussed such mandate is that of the National Institutes of Health (NIH). Since 2008, NIH has required its grantees to post their peer-reviewed manuscripts in a free online archive after an embargo of up to 12 months following a paper's publication in a journal. Two years ago, the Science Committee convened a group of stakeholders, called the Scholarly Publishing Roundtable, that looked at whether other agencies should follow NIH's lead. The group's compromise conclusion urged agencies to develop public access policies, but said each should work out the details (embargo length and whether to post papers in a central archive or on scientists' personal web sites, for example).

At today's hearing held by the committee's Subcommittee on Investigations and Oversight, two representatives of scientific societies—Crispin Taylor of the American Society of Plant Biologists and Frederick Dylla of the American Institute of Physics—were leery of an NIH-style mandate. They warned of cancelled journal subscriptions if articles were freely available, even after a 12-month embargo.

However, Elliott Maxwell, author of a recent report from a business group that found the NIH policy is increasing access without harming publishers, said NIH's policy is a good model. He argued that agencies should start with the NIH policy and "dial back" to make it fit their scientific disciplines.

Two bills in Congress take dueling positions on the issue: One would throw out the NIH policy, while the other would require other agencies to follow NIH's example, but with a 6-month embargo. The Science Committee, meanwhile, wants to see how the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP) responds to a request in the 2010 COMPETES Act asking for a report on federal policies on public access. OSTP's report should be out in a few weeks, the committee says.

According to a recent New York Times story, OSTP will take the roundtable's approach and will not dictate what agencies should do.