Open Access News

News from the open access movement

Monday, April 07, 2008

Harold Varmus on the new NIH policy

Harold Varmus, Progress toward Public Access to Science, PLoS Biology, April 8, 2008.  An editorial.  Varmus is the President of the Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center, co-founder of the Public Library of Science, former director of the NIH (1993-1999), and the 1989 Nobel laureate for physiology or medicine.  Excerpt:

The National Institutes of Health (NIH) is about to cross an important threshold....

[The new OA policy at the NIH] is a landmark event from several perspectives. Most obviously, it further accelerates the world-wide movement toward greater access to the scientific literature....By taking this step, the NIH will join other funding agencies —including the Wellcome Trust, the UK Research Councils, the European Research Council, and the Howard Hughes Medical Institute— all of which have recently required their investigators to deposit publications in PMC or equivalent public libraries....Since NIH-supported investigators publish about 80,000 papers each year...the library will soon grow at about twice its already impressive rate. With an enlarged PMC, the virtues of full-text searches and ready access will be more obvious, encouraging still greater participation by authors of work not funded by the agencies that mandate deposition. As we all know, scientists want their work to be found, read, and cited.

The new NIH policy is especially gratifying to those of us who founded the Public Library of Science eight years ago with the goal of promoting greater access to and better use of the scientific literature through libraries like PMC. Still, not all articles in PMC are accessible on the same terms or timelines, and the public libraries and the laudable new policies from funding agencies still fall short of the full potential envisioned for a digital world of science. For articles in traditional, subscription-based journals, there is normally a six- to 12-month interval between publication and posting for public access. For that reason, the libraries are inherently archival —they are useful for searching relatively recent papers, but not for browsing most of the world's newly published work. Furthermore, not every important new article will have been supported by enlightened funding agencies and fall within the reach of their mandates; those may not appear in PMC at all. The libraries are also limited as archives —the new policy is not retroactive....

Finally, unless authors modify their copyright agreements with journals before publication —something they are urged to do— journals will continue to retain inappropriate control over the use of their articles, which is currently confined largely to reading online for most articles in PMC.

In contrast, open-access journals, like those published by PLoS or BioMed Central, make their articles immediately and freely available in PMC, eliminating any extra work by the authors and any delay before the articles are fully accessible. Furthermore, these journals permit far greater use of their articles, by allowing readers to explore and reuse the texts under the terms of a Creative Commons license. These degrees of freedom are possible because access and use do not diminish revenues....Thus the distribution and reuse of open-access content can be without limit, just as scientists and the public would wish....

Open-access publishing offers a way out of this dilemma in academia, just as it offers solutions to the shortcomings of public libraries like PMC. When costs of publication are recovered from publishing fees instead of from subscriptions, and when authors retain copyrights and grant licenses to publishers, both of which happen with open-access publishing, then articles can be placed immediately in open university repositories (or in public libraries) without threats to revenues or infringements of ownership. We at PLoS celebrate these principles, while also applauding the new policies at Harvard, the NIH, and elsewhere, as welcome signs of continued progress toward public access to research literature.