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J Med Libr Assoc. 2010 July; 98(3): 256–259.
PMCID: PMC2901012

Campus perspective on the National Institutes of Health public access policy: University of California, San Francisco, library experience

Marcus A Banks, MLIS
Manager of Education and Research Services ; ude.fscu@sknab.sucram

BACKGROUND

The National Institutes of Health (NIH) public access policy became effective in April 2008 and was signed into law in March 2009 [1]. Following the example of funding agencies throughout North America and Europe—such as the Canadian Institutes of Health Research and the Wellcome Trust—the NIH public access policy requires that the results of NIH-funded research be made freely available online no later than twelve months after acceptance for publication. NIH names PubMed Central as the repository of choice for these articles [2].

The NIH policy was an outcome of years of debate between librarians, publishers, authors, and funding agencies about how to disseminate research content online. This debate continues. With its twelve-month embargo, the NIH policy does not support immediate online open access, frustrating activists who feel the embargo should be shorter or nonexistent [3]. Fully open access articles are freely available online and stored in a reliable digital repository [4]. Many publishers argue that the policy is an unwarranted government intrusion and stress that they already make their content available for free after a delay [5].

Health sciences librarians generally support the goals of the open access movement but have a professional responsibility to provide objective information about scholarly communication developments. In addition, libraries are in a position to assist researchers and administrative staff with the details of compliance with the NIH policy. Many librarians have developed resources about the NIH public access policy, such as the comprehensive web page maintained by the Bernard Becker Library at Washington University in St. Louis [6]. Previous authors in the Journal of the Medical Library Association have also reported about assistance in supporting information requests about the NIH public access policy, both when the policy was optional [7, 8] and after it became permanent [9].

At the University of California, San Francisco (UCSF), an academic health sciences campus, the authors have developed a web page and offered staff training and workshops for various campus groups about how to comply with the policy [10]. We also established a dedicated email address for UCSF patrons to ask questions about the policy, which has received approximately ten queries in the past eighteen months.

This communication reports the results of a survey conducted in the spring of 2009 to gauge awareness of the NIH public access policy among faculty and other academics at UCSF, as well as their feelings (positive and negative) about the open access movement. The UCSF Library has participated in many efforts in recent years to raise campus awareness about the possibilities of open access publishing, and this survey provided an opportunity to understand how best to focus future outreach to faculty on this topic.

METHODS

An email message stating that the UCSF Library wanted to “understand how the NIH Public Access Policy is impacting UCSF researchers” was sent to a campus email discussion list that reaches approximately 7,500 people, primarily people in academic series of the university (such as faculty and postdoctoral researchers). The message asked recipients to complete a survey, noting that it should take 5 minutes to complete. Recipients had 2 weeks to complete the survey, which was timed to coincide with the one-year anniversary of the launch of the NIH public access policy. All responses were anonymous.

The survey (Appendix, online only) was administered using SurveyMonkey, a widely available web-based tool that streamlines data collection and allows for sophisticated filtering of survey results by numerous parameters. Questions were vetted to guard against leading or suggestive wording. Two faculty members with an interest in scholarly communication issues assisted with this effort.

LIMITATIONS OF THE STUDY

Survey respondents were a self-selected group, and despite the vetting procedures, the wording of questions may have inadvertently influenced the results. The target audience of the survey was faculty members, but in many cases administrative support staff have the responsibility of learning the nuances of how to comply with the policy. Also, it is unclear how comparable the results from UCSF are to those of other institutions.

RESULTS

A total of 200 members of the UCSF community responded to the survey: 60.0% faculty, 17.5% postdoctoral fellows, 10.0% other academics, 10.0% students, and 2.5% staff. This represents a response rate of 2.6%, with a confidence interval of +/−7.0%. While this is a small response rate based on 7,500 recipients, it was a higher response rate than we anticipated. Not every respondent answered every question. All respondents did rate their awareness of the NIH policy, with 84% of the survey respondents considering themselves aware or highly aware of it.

One hundred ninety-nine people answered 3 of the survey questions about the mechanics of complying with the NIH policy. More than half (57%) had received an NIH grant within the last 3 years, and slightly less than half (45%) had taken steps to deposit articles in PubMed Central. Among the small number (n = 40) who had sought assistance in understanding how to comply with the policy, most (59%) had contacted the publisher or editor, 17% the UCSF Library, 27% the departmental grant administrator, and 22% NIH staff.

Of 199 respondents, over 90% (185) of respondents rated themselves as aware or highly aware of the concept of open access. Of those who had received an NIH grant within the last 3 years (n = 86), 50% indicated that they considered a journal's open access policy when deciding where to publish.

One hundred ninety-four respondents identified positive benefits of open access, with 80% (155) identifying “easy access to articles” as a positive benefit to open access (Table 1). One hundred sixty-eight respondents noted concerns about open access, with the most frequently mentioned concern that it would be an additional administrative burden; 36% of respondents indicated this concern. In general, the multiple choice responses revealed more positive than negative feelings about open access; 36% of respondents were neutral when asked about negative developments, but only 9% failed to mention any positive developments.

Table 1
Positive and negative benefits of open access*

People with positive or negative views can appreciate the “other side of the coin” when it comes to open access. For example, 26% (n = 40/155) of respondents who listed easy access to research articles as a positive development also noted its potential negative impact on publishers. The survey allowed respondents to choose as many options as they wanted, because open access publishing presents questions of competing values.

Free-text comments captured feelings about the positive and negative impacts of open access most vividly. There were almost twice as many critical as positive comments (n = 19 v. n = 10). Many negative comments seemed to conflate journal programs that offered immediate deposit into PubMed Central as part of an author fees option with the more general concept of open access. Here are some sample comments, both positive and negative:

Positive: “Scientists should not have to purchase their own results, they should share with each other”; “Informatics can be performed on databases of research articles (if truly open access).”

Negative: “Can be expensive for projects with limited funds”; “It really is difficult to figure out how to handle the administrative burden.”

DISCUSSION

While the survey result numbers were relatively small, the free-text comments were highly informative and have informed our campus outreach efforts as well as opened up new avenues of research.

The survey's targeted audience was faculty members, but it would have been helpful to target administrative staff as well, because these individuals are often tasked with understanding the nuances of compliance with the policy. The strong faculty perspective did help elucidate philosophical perspectives about open access and provided implicit information about researcher's motivations regarding where to publish.

It is understandable that a higher percentage of respondents had contacted representatives of a journal with questions about the policy than had contacted the library. The library is not part of the workflow of paper publication by faculty. Library staff, however, are well placed to reach out to research administrators about the implications and context of such policies designed to increase access to research information and, in some cases, to develop services to make it easier to comply with them.

The NIH policy is not synonymous with open access publishing, but it is a modified form that represents an outgrowth of ongoing debates about open access. Thus, the significant attention paid by NIH recipients to open access options is heartening. However, much more work is needed to determine if a “consideration” of open access leads to publication in open access journals.

The one-year anniversary of the launch of the NIH public access policy offered an effective mechanism for promoting the survey, but it is still too early to understand the full impact of the policy on researcher workflow and on the scholarly publishing landscape. Thus, the suggestions below are provisional. The survey results suggest two concrete actions academic health sciences librarians can take.

  1. Clarify confusion about fee-based PubMed Central deposit programs. Many of our survey respondents appeared to conflate “open access” with author fees that publishers charge for deposit in PubMed Central. This confusion is probably because many publishers direct authors to their fee-based hybrid options as a way to comply with the NIH public access policy. These options are often called “online open” or something similar [11]. Librarians should regularly inform faculty that no fee is required to comply with the NIH public access policy.
  2. Continue to raise campus awareness about the value of the library for authoritative information and research about scholarly communications issues in general. For example, libraries may wish to conduct a survey to determine more precisely people's motivations for publishing in an open access journal. The library also has the opportunity to highlight evidence of the greater reach of open access articles [12, 13] and the ways changes in scientific communication are impacting research [14, 15].

In addition, the UCSF Library's outreach to administrative staff for research programs regarding the NIH public access policy has proved extremely valuable for increasing librarians' understanding of the complexities of the policy. With such knowledge at hand, health sciences librarians would be in a better position to offer relevant training materials.

CONCLUSION

The NIH public access policy represents a prime opportunity to engage with the academic health sciences community about issues of scholarly publishing. At UCSF, some inroads have been made in this direction, but not to the desired extent. It is still early in the lifetime of this policy, and its full impact on scholars and administrative staff will become more apparent with time. This survey points to the need for continued library involvement in this arena and has prompted immediate plans to clarify confusion about publisher fees and to develop education programs for researchers and their administrators that emphasize the impact of open access.

It will always be difficult to capture the attention of researchers regarding abstract issues of “publishing” that seem to have little bearing on day-to-day work. But anyone who is editing a journal or is considering paying for deposit to PubMed Central is engaged in the real-time, real-world decisions that sustain the scholarly enterprise. By providing authoritative and objective information to such individuals about the NIH policy, librarians can play a valuable role.

Electronic Content

APPENDIX

Journal of the Medical Library Association:

Footnotes

ECA supplemental appendix is available with the online version of this journal.

REFERENCES

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