- Copyright © 2004 by the American Academy of Pediatrics
The National Institutes of Health (NIH) is seeking comments on a draft proposal that could radically change the landscape of medical publishing. The proposal involves the creation of a centralized repository into which copies of all published articles describing research funded by NIH would be placed. Full-text copies of articles would be made available without a subscription on the NIH Web site within six months of their publication in a scientific journal.
NIH has proposed this “open archive” as a way to facilitate enhanced public access to NIH health-related research information. Scientific and medical societies, including the Academy, have expressed reservations that they would like to address before any such system would be implemented.
NIH and stakeholders (publishers, investigators and representatives from scientific associations and the public) have established and intend to maintain a dialogue to ensure the success of this initiative.
In its current proposal, NIH intends to request that its grantees and supported principal investigators provide the NIH with electronic copies of all final version manuscripts upon acceptance for publication if the research was supported in whole or in part by NIH funding. This would include all research grants, cooperative agreements and contracts, as well as National Research Service Award (NRSA) fellowships.
NIH stated that it is essential to ensure that scientific information arising from NIH-funded research is available in a timely fashion to other scientists, health care providers, students, teachers and the public when“ searching the Web to obtain credible health-related information.... Establishing a comprehensive, searchable electronic resource of NIH-funded research results and providing free access to all is perhaps the most fundamental way to collect and disseminate this information.”
The draft proposal, put forth by NIH Director Elias A. Zerhouni, M.D., is intended to:
help NIH manage its portfolio of research,
provide taxpayers with increased access to NIH research and
address the current rate of scientific research.
Some stakeholders, however, believe that moving forward with the draft proposal in its current form could shift the landscape of scientific publication from a reader-financed to an author-financed system. This shift could have significant repercussions on the quality of literature, the cost to taxpayers and researchers, and the reliability of the peer-review process.
The push to move to an author-financed system grew out of the open access movement, which began in the late 1990s as increasing numbers of university libraries found themselves struggling to keep up with the rising costs of scientific, technical and medical (STM) journals. The subscription rates and bundling practices — particularly those of commercial publishers — have been outpacing library budgets for over a decade, resulting in what has become known as the “Serials Crisis.” As the Internet expanded the reach of electronic journals, some began brainstorming publication models that would be free to readers.
One such model, dubbed the “author-pays” model, places the burden for recovering the cost of publication on the authors of research papers. A current experiment with this model is under way at the Public Library of Science's journal PLoS Biology, which launched last October with the help of a $9 million grant. Authors pay $1,500 per published article in PLoS Biology, and the content is immediately free to readers on the Internet (although there's still a subscription for the print version). It should be noted, however, that this $1,500 fee does not meet all the costs of publication — which are subsidized by PLoS's grant funding. The full cost of publishing an article in most journals ranges from $2,000 to $10,000 depending on the selectivity of the journal (more selective journals incur higher costs due to the expense of peer-reviewing all the articles that they do not publish).
The Academy's three main concerns with an author-pays model were highlighted in a commentary “Open Sesame? Increasing Access to Medical Literature,” by Pediatrics senior managing editor Michael T. Clarke. Clarke states that: 1) An author-pays model is not currently fiscally tenable, due to the reliance on a single revenue source, 2) An author-pays model is not workable for a vast number of contributors to Pediatrics, many of whom do not have funding mechanisms for publication charges. 3) Author-pays models shift the primary“ customer” of journals from readers to authors, resulting in even the most selective journals accepting more articles — many of lower quality (Pediatrics.2004 ;114:265 -268OpenUrl).
Since 1997, Pediatrics has been engaged in its own form of open-access publishing. Today every article published in the journal is freely accessible on the Web either immediately (in the case of the Electronic Pages), or after one year (in the case of everything else). The journal does not charge any author fees.
“The Academy does not object to the concept that taxpayer-funded research be available to taxpayers. What the Academy is concerned about is the way that might occur,” said AAP Executive Director/CEO Errol R. Alden, M.D., FAAP.
Of particular concern are the unintended consequences of the NIH proposal. Because NIH is viewed as such a leader in the world, other funding agencies— both public and private — are watching its proposal closely. While NIH-funded research accounts for only a portion of the research published in most journals, it is likely that research from other funding agencies will be held to similar requirements in the future. This will be enough to tip the system to one in which subscriptions are not feasible and authors must pay to be published.
The Academy was present in August at one of three stakeholder meetings held by NIH to elicit responses to its proposal.
Clarke, who spoke at the meeting, said the Academy is concerned that switching to the open access system could introduce an “inherent, structural conflict of interest” because the author whose research a journal is evaluating also is the principal source of income for that journal.
Susan Greco, executive director of the Deafness Research Foundation, posited that what many patients want is not access to original research, but rather an interpretation of that research in a digested format. “Can we strike a balance by offering public access in a summarized version — a layman's version if you will?” Researchers could continue to access papers-in-full through the existing publication models.
According to Marty Frank, executive director of the American Physiological Society, “publishers have already created archives and it would be preferable for NIH to leverage this investment and continue to provide access via links through PubMed.” Frank said this current system also is more cost-effective and avoids the potential that federal funds might no longer be available to support this proposed archive.
Stakeholders also expressed concern that funding allocated to research might be diverted to cover publication fees. “Publishing the research output of NIH in an author-pays system could run into hundreds of millions of dollars annually,” noted Clarke.
“The NIH open access draft proposal is a departure from the way research is published now,” said Dr. Alden. “Some of the issues need to be worked out in more detail before the Academy can be supportive.”