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Changing the Landscape
NIH To Make 'Public Access' Effective May 2

By Rich McManus

On the Front Page...

After a long period of public comment and controversy, NIH made official on Feb. 3 its intent to create an online public archive of the research it funds. Starting May 2, the National Library of Medicine's PubMed Central will host an electronic, searchable database of peer-reviewed journal articles funded by NIH money within 12 months of the articles' appearance in print, but preferably as soon as possible. NIH-funded investigators will be asked, not required, to post their manuscripts to PMC so that citizen-taxpayers will have free access to the work their money has purchased.


In telephone briefings first with stakeholders then reporters, NIH director Dr. Elias Zerhouni provided his rationale for what he called a dramatic change in the landscape of science. "Until today, there has been no policy on public access to NIH science," he said. "We felt strongly that a change was needed, that the status quo was not good enough, and that the interests of the public were not served."

Zerhouni noted that some 93 million Americans visit the World Wide Web yearly in search of reliable medical information, and that 58 percent of these browsers go on to use information gleaned from the Internet in their visits to physicians. "It is vital in the new world of rapid access to electronic information that we establish an NIH archive," he said.

Three goals are accomplished by NIH's new policy, Zerhouni noted: It ensures and accelerates the public's access to cutting-edge science; it establishes for all time a searchable, online archive of NIH-funded publications; and it allows NIH "better management of our investment in research" by serving as a report card on what scientists are doing with NIH money. Indeed, participation in the archive wins NIH grantees a reprieve from the obligation to fill out annual progress reports.

"This policy creates a new platform and changes the landscape for the display of NIH-funded research," said Zerhouni, who noted that the agency faced an array of opposition — chiefly from established publishing interests — to entering the publishing arena. "Many encouraged NIH to stay out of the [public access] debate."

More than 6,200 comments on the proposed policy arrived at NIH between September, when the policy was first made public, and November 2004, Zerhouni noted. "We've been extremely responsive to the comments," he said, noting repeatedly that the policy is "flexible" and designed to encourage "maximum participation."

The policy applies to any research supported in whole or in part by NIH direct costs, regardless of funding mechanism, explained Dr. Norka Ruiz Bravo, NIH deputy director for extramural research. "It requests, but does not require, that authors deposit in PMC an electronic version of the final, peer-reviewed manuscript. The author specifies when the article will be made public. We expect them to do that as soon as possible, and within 12 months of the [journal] publication date."

She enunciated three benefits to participants: increased visibility of the author's work; an enhanced ability to gain access to datasets (potential collaborators, for instance, could test-drive an author's data); and an alternate means of complying with NIH's requirement for annual progress reports from grantees.

The benefits to NIH, Ruiz Bravo continued, are that we get a new and expanding archive that allows both macro- and micro-management of NIH's portfolio. The benefit to the public, she concluded, is "better access to peer-reviewed, credible scientific information."

Both Zerhouni and Ruiz Bravo — joined in some instances by NLM's Dr. David Lipman, whose National Center for Biotechnology Information hosts PMC — took 14 phone queries from the stakeholders' group and an additional 19 calls from reporters (several of whom called twice) in back-to-back telebriefing sessions Feb. 3 that lasted about 30 minutes each.

During the exchanges, Zerhouni explained that "Congress, patient groups and others let us know that the current system is just not performing sufficiently...We are adding, not detracting, from current publishing practices. The status quo just isn't acceptable in the world of modern communications...It wouldn't serve the country if NIH did not display its research."

He said NIH got pressure both to shorten and to lengthen the authors' submission time to PMC, and observed, "We're establishing a venue for scientists that will change and transform science, and the diffusion and transmission of science. We do want to encourage [PMC submission] as soon as possible after the date of [journal] publication." He said NIH wants to "create a momentum toward earlier submission...people are getting too hung up on timing, but forgetting that we want maximum participation, not partial participation."

NIH deliberately avoided mandating participation in the archive, Zerhouni explained. "We thought we'd do more harm than good by relying on a mandate...We trust our scientists to do what's right by the public that funds them. " Added Ruiz Bravo, "We think scientists are among the most independent people you could find — it's hard to make them do something."

Several callers asked about potential penalties for noncompliance with the policy. "No penalties are planned at all," stated Ruiz Bravo. "We are requesting, not requiring. We have no plans to punish anybody who doesn't comply with the policy...There will be record-keeping, though, since compliance represents an alternative to required progress reporting."

Zerhouni assured participants in the phone sessions that NIH will keep an eye on the policy's progress. "There will be an evaluation process," he said. "The NLM board of regents is establishing a public access advisory working group" that will track the policy and any needed amendments.

Starting May 2, NIH will be ready to start accepting manuscripts, Ruiz Bravo said. The cost of establishing and maintaining the archive is expected to be $2 million-$4 million a year, Zerhouni predicted.

NLM's Lipman says that officials here estimate that NIH supports around 60,000 research papers each year, and that the size of the new archive will depend on the percentage of authors who elect to participate. "Our goal is a comprehensive, up-to-date archive, but we realize that it will have to evolve," he said. "There's a culture change involved here. No one's done this before."

For more details on NIH's public access plan, visit
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