One of the biggest treasure troves of knowledge will soon enter the commons: a major victory for the open access movement! It involves a huge reservoir of federally funded medical research that will be put into the public domain.
For years, commercial journal publishers have been fighting a proposal to require that federally funded research be made available for free twelve months after its publication. What may sound like an arcane policy battle in fact has serious implications for ordinary Americans trying to find reliable medical information. If you’re a breast cancer patient or the parent of a child with a rare disease, for example, chances are you’d like to be able to read the latest medical literature that our own tax dollars have paid for.
As taxpayers, we pay for $28 billion a year in medical research sponsored by the U.S. National Institutes of Health. To get a sense of the magnitude of this research budget, it is more than the domestic budget of 142 nations! It results in about 65,000 peer-reviewed articles, or 178 articles every day.
Historically, commercial journal publishers have controlled this information for its own private profit. Previous attempts to make the information freely available resulted in an NIH rule that made it voluntary for researchers to put their articles in an open-access archive or journal. But only 4 percent of researchers actually elected to put their articles in an open-access format.
Now, thanks to the persistence of open-access lobbyists, an open-access provision made its way into an omnibus spending bill that passed Congress the day after Christmas, which President Bush then signed. The bill contains a provision requiring NIH to mandate open access for NIH-funded research within one year of the publication of an article.
Peter Suber, a leading activist and chronicler of the open access movement, said this about the bill in his SPARC Open Access Newsletter
This is a momentous victory, despite the 12 month embargo. Measured by the ferocity of opposition overcome and the volume of literature liberated, it’s the largest victory in the history of the OA movement. It’s only a plateau, not a summit, but it’s an immense success. Researchers, OA advocates, and everyone concerned to advance medical knowledge, are justified in feeling joy and relief.
This OA success is significant because it is the “first OA mandate for a major public funding agency in the U.S.,” as Suber notes, and so it is likely to be an important precedent that will help other federal agencies follow suit. While the twelve-month delay is unfortunate, the new policy assures that 100 percent of taxpayer-funded NIH research will be available for free to the public. It’s a rich pleasure to celebrate the expansion of a new knowledge commons!