Online federal library on health research sparks outcry

A battle over a proposal to make taxpayer-funded medical research reports available to the public is brewing on Capitol Hill, pitting some publishers and members of the scientific and medical communities against each other.

"The issue here is research that has been created with taxpayer money," said Rick Johnson, director of the Scholarly Publishing and Academic Resources Coalition. The coalition is part of the Open Access Working Group that has promoted the notion of open access to research.

At issue is language in the House Appropriations Committee report on the bill to fund the Labor, Health and Human Services, and Education departments in fiscal 2005. The report calls for authors funded by the National Institutes of Health to deposit their research into a central, digital repository that would be freely available to the public.

Roughly 60,000 NIH-funded reports are written each year, and more than 25,000 journals publish research articles from various sources. Libraries likely would not cancel current journal subscriptions as a result of the repository, he said, because they also need the other research.

NIH, which has a $28 billion budget, is not asking for additional appropriations, Johnson said, but is seeking a more efficient way to get its research to people who can benefit from it and who pay for it. He added that the repository is a just step toward greater efficiency.

"It does not mean free lunch," Johnson said. "It means finding other ways to pay the cost of publishing."

But some publishers say the move would create a government-mandated repository without evidentiary hearings. "It is extremely unfair," said Barbara Meredith, vice president of professional and scholarly publishing for the Association of American Publishers (AAP). She said the move "would signal the demise" of scientific publishers.

NIH's proposed system would run parallel to what publishers already make available on the Internet. Under the proposal, authors would write manuscripts that would be uploaded to PubMedCentral after a six-month embargo to protect publishers.

"This is simply an alternative." Johnson said. But it could be a cost-saving alternative for libraries that saw journal prices skyrocket some 227 percent between 1986 and 2002.

NIH held a series of three meetings with stakeholders in the research community in late August, but the AAP said the meetings were "hastily called." The group has its sights on the Senate.

AAP President Patricia Schroeder argued in a letter to Pennsylvania Republican Arlen Specter, chairman of the Senate Appropriations subcommittee that oversees NIH funding, that opponents of the idea have been "steamrolled" by a process that has lacked hearings and evidentiary record.

"A government-operated repository raises the specter of government censorship and encroachment upon scholarly discourse," she wrote.

The "intent of the committee" is "to take a serious look at this idea, not that we must do it right now," said a spokesman at the House subcommittee that oversees NIH. The institute is scheduled to submit a report to the committee by Dec. 1 on how it would implement the policy.

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