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.