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Free public access is to be made available to the results of research funded by the National Institutes of Health, the US Senate has decided.
Widespread non-compliance with an existing voluntary public access initiative has led to support for the mandatory programme. According to a government report issued in January 2006, less than 4% of articles were made publicly available in the eight month period initiation of the voluntary programme in May 2005 (http://publicaccess.nih.gov/Final_Report_20060201.pdf).
The Senate passed a bill on 23 October that requires researchers who are funded by the National Institutes of Health to submit their manuscripts to the agency's National Library of Medicine for publication in PubMed within 12 months of publication in a peer reviewed journal.
Passage of the bill was urged by 26 Nobel prize winners who signed a letter to Congress stating that patients and researchers stand to benefit from free access to research supported by taxpayers, which they said “can maximise the return on our collective investment in science and . . . further the public good.”
The bill will become law after reconciliation with a similar bill passed by the House of Representatives. However, the president, George Bush, has threatened to veto the bill if it exceeds certain spending limits.
Opponents of the bill included the publishers of a number of scientific and technical journals, such as Peter Banks, former publisher of the journals of the American Diabetes Association. He said in a 2004 interview that public or “open” access would create a “parallel universe of publications” in which various versions would confuse librarians and the public (www.dclab.com/DCLTP.ASP?FN=open_access_interviews). Elsevier publishing, which has also opposed open access, did not respond to BMJ requests for their comments.
Heather Joseph, executive director of the Scholarly Publishing and Academic Resources Coalition (SPARC) lauded the passage of the bill. She told the BMJ that researchers stand to benefit because “no library can subscribe to everything,” making it difficult to perform in-depth literature searches at times. “One of the biggest places it will make a difference,” she said, was for people who go to the internet and “if they can't interpret [the studies] themselves, they take the information they find to their doctors—and that can only benefit everyone.”
The bill's provisions do not affect researchers who fail to, or choose not to, have their study results published in a peer reviewed journal. Neither is there provision requiring authors to share underlying data.
Ms Joseph agreed that the bill falls short in these areas and said that the bill will not add to the credibility or reliability of the underlying science. However, she added, “This may look like a baby step—but it's a fairly important baby step.”