A tiny drop of ink, a big win for science

Buried amidst the bad news on the budget today is this gem from Rick Weiss of the Washington Post:
It is barely a drop of ink in the gargantuan omnibus spending bill ... a provision that would give the public free access to the results of federally funded biomedical research represents a sweet victory for a coalistion of researchers and activists who lobbied for the language for years.

What this means is that after years of battling the publishers' lobby, patients' advocates and scientists have finally won a victory, even if it's not everything we wanted. What did we win? The language buried in the giant spending bill will require NIH-funded researchers (like me) to make their published research freely available to the public within 12 months of publication.

This is very good news, and the patients' advocates deserve the most credit. Thanks to the Internet, patients have discovered that they can read about the latest research on treatments for their conditions - cancers, infectious diseases, environmental hazards, and more. These same patients have discovered, as scientists have known for years, that most journals won't give you access to anything more than a title and abstract (and sometimes just the title!) unless you pay a heft fee, typically $30-$50 or more per article. These fees are truly unfair, even ridiculous, for work that was funded by the taxpayers in the first place. Patient groups have expressed growing outrage that they can't even read the research that they paid for - research that, in many cases, offers them the only hope they can find for a cure.

A recent statistic showed that a typical NIH-funded publication cost the taxpayers over $150,000. How could it possibly be that private publishers owned the copyrights to any of these studies? But they did, mostly because it's been a long tradition that scientists signed over copyright when they published in a journal, and the funders (usually the government) allowed them to. Believe me, scientists don't want to sign over copyright - it's just that we had little choice until the Internet came along, and more recently the emergence of open-access journals. Even today, though, despite the growth of open access, many of the leading journals in science and medicine are not open access, and their subscription fees are often exhorbitant. [As an aside, the Wash Post reports that the average scientific journal subscription has risen to over $963 per year, a cost that more than doubled since 1995.]

The new system isn't perfect: journals will be allowed to keep results under lock and key for up to 12 months, restricting access. This was a compromise that I hope we can improve upon. The original proposals called for either immediate access or a 6-month delay, but publishers and their lobbyists were able to get this changed to 12-months. Those of us who follow Washington politics know that NIH almost made this their policy over two years ago - but at the time, the lobbyists somehow got to the NIH Director (Zerhouni), who at the very last minute made it "optional." So of course the journals refused to change their practices and nothing changed at that time.

This new free access policy is a big breakthrough. Thanks and kudos to the citizens and scientists - many of them working tirelessly behind the scenes for the past several years - who finally succeeded in opening up scientific research to the public. Now let's work on reducing that 12-month delay to zero.


  1. I wonder if you'd comment on the idea that our peer-review system is broken. I have been saying that lately around the lab, and people tend to agree with me. It seems that everyone has an example of having a manuscript sit on a reviewers desk for way too long only to be rejected. And then find out that the reviewer was busy trying to repeat the results from the manuscript. Not to mention the idea that the journals are making a profit, and dictating the nature of research by controlling what gets published and where. That seems to be an awful lot of power for a government-funded entity (I call the journals government-funded b/c as you mention in the post, they essentially are).
    Why not employ what I like to call the "rotten tomatoes" method? Its just like PLOS one, where everyone with a legitimate mansucript can publish. And then its up to all the readers to score it. You can even designate certain scientists as experts, and their critique can be considered separate, much in the way that rotten tomatoes has critics separated from the people.

  2. I wouldn't go so far as to say it's broken. In fact, we (scientists and reviewers) are in the process of re-inventing it through open access publishing.

    The degree of control exercised by commercial publishers needs to be 'broken', though, and the open-access movement is trying to do that - with considerable success in the biomedical sciences, I would add. (Not so much in computer science, by the way, or many other fields.)

    Your "rotten tomatoes" method is already being tried - not through PLoS ONE, though that is one good example of a new model, but through (1) Biology Direct, which is even more radical - you, the author, can publish anything as long as you can get 3 of the editorial board members to review it or to approve reviewers - even if the reviews are negative. The thing is, the reviews are published too.
    (2) Faculty of 1000 (F1000), which is exactly what you're describing when you write 'it's up to all the readers to score it. You can even designate certain scientists as experts, and their critique can be considered separate.'

    F1000 works well as a go-to site to find out what people like in a wide range of scientific areas. Disclosure: I'm a faculty member of F1000.

  3. Wow, thanks. I'll check those sites out. Although it is hard for a postdoc to make any changes by sending good science to those types of places, if I ever have a lab I'll do my part.


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