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Public input on NIH public access.

The National Institutes of Health (NIH) implemented the Public Access Policy on Jan. 11, 2008. As of April 7, all final peer-reviewed manuscripts arising from NIH funds must now be submitted to PubMed Central upon acceptance for publication. As of May 25, 2008, NIH applications, proposals, and progress reports now must also include the PubMed Central reference number when citing a paper that falls under the policy and is authored or coauthored by the investigator or arose from the investigator's NIH award.

On March 20, the NIH met in what was described as a "listening session," supported by 451 comments collected before the meeting. According to NIH director Elias A. Zerhouni, M.D., in his welcoming comments, the "preliminary analysis indicates over 60% of these premeeting comments expressed support of the policy as implemented, but approximately 15% thought the 12-month delay period was too long, and 15% had concerns that a mandatory policy will be detrimental to scientific publishers."

The goal of this meeting was to ensure that the policy's implementation would work for all involved as successfully as possible. "We are all ears," Zerhouni said. "We need to move forward and we are completely open to an interactive process here that will take into account all input."

But this certainly has not been the first time the NIH has engaged stakeholders in the direction for the NIH policy. According to Heather Joseph, executive director of SPARC (the Scholarly Publishing and Academic Resources Coalition), "Zerhouni personally engaged the discussion by conducting multiple public meetings with publishers, scientists, and patient groups in 2004. The proposal explicitly highlighted NIH's desire for stakeholder input." In addition, "between September 3 and November 16, 2004, NIH received 6,249 comments on the proposal, the overwhelming majority of which were supportive," she said.

A New Request for Information

In the next round of public comment, a request for information (RFI) was undertaken on the NIH website from March 28, 2008, to May 31, 2008. There were 190 comments by the time the site was closed on the last day (but comments were still viewable after the closure). The NIH will post its analysis from this RFI for public view at by Sept. 30.

The RFI was focused on four questions (although there was clearly overlap between the questions and the answers). I found the most important question centered on recommendations for "alternative implementation approaches" and "recommendations for monitoring and ensuring compliance."

Since this debate has lasted several years now, there were no earth-shattering revelations in the RFI. (Indeed, there was the rather mind-numbing revelation that I have read this before.) But one trend that was apparent was a call by some publishers proposing the formation of a dark archive where the NIH serves as a repository of links rather than actually holding the text. While the possibility of creating such a dark archive has arisen before in relation to PubMed Central, I believe that many publishers are offering this idea as the lesser of two evils in their minds.

Others also noted this theme of a dark archive. "This proposal would NOT achieve a major goal of the NIH, which is to provide a free, digital and permanent stable archive of biomedical and life sciences journal literature," according to Beth Israel, vice president for research at Arizona State University. "For a database to be effectively crated and for the quality of material it contains preserved, it must be used regularly.... Libraries have a long history in dealing with archiving and preservation issues. We can say emphatically that a dark archive that links to publishers' web sites is an unacceptable alternative to PMC that NIH has consistently and wisely rejected."

Julie Todaro, president of the Association of College & Research Libraries, argues that "over the long term, as publishers and journals change ownership, links would inevitably break and more work would be required of NIH staff to maintain the links than would be needed to maintain a central repository. Advanced researchers will still rely on the published record for citation and other purposes. NIH has wisely rejected the model of a dark archive in the past, and should continue to do so."

How Best to Oversee Compliance

Clearly, the question of how well the NIH will oversee compliance is going to create rather mixed messages. As expected, there was the usual hand wringing from some publishers with the typical comments about "unfunded communication mandate" and so forth. But the universities were particularly forthcoming with thoughtful ideas including, "Developing an automated system for alerting institutions when an article has been submitted would be a terrific way to allow institutions to track the submission" from Joyce Ogburn, university librarian from the University of Utah, and, "We would like to see an efficient mechanism for the PubMed Central manuscript to also be deposited in our own IR," from Wendy Lougee, university librarian from the University of Minnesota. Other institutions offered other ideas and even included links to their own plans from the NIH website.

"We encourage the NIH to closely monitor key aspects of the Public Access Policy's implementation, including 1) Experience of publishers with six-month or shorte [embargoes]: It is in the public's interest to reduce the duration of the public access embargo to as short a period as possible. NIH should collect data on the sustainability of biomedical journals that offer open access within six months of publication in order to evaluate the potential to reduce the maximum PubMed Central embargo," according to Joseph from SPARC. She added, "and 2) Extent to which eligible articles are captured in PubMed Central: For the policy to succeed, it is imperative that deposit of articles from NIH-funded research be nearly universal. We trust the agency will track this and take reasonable, appropriate steps to ensure success."

I thank the NIH for taking a leadership role in this policy, but I also hope that the NIH takes this as the last study to be done before the policy is implemented.

Robin Peek is associate professor at the Graduate School of Library and Information Science at Simmons College. In May, she launched the Open Access Directory with Peter Suber. Send your comments about this column to itletters@info
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Title Annotation:Focus on Publishing; United States. National Institutes of Health
Author:Peek, Robin
Publication:Information Today
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Jul 1, 2008
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