NIH Open Access policy, not so much

NIH Has Little to Celebrate on 1st Anniversary of Its Open-Access Policy, but Changes May Be on Way, from the Chronicle

The public-access policy of the National Institutes of Health marked its first anniversary last week, and all involved in the debate agree that it has failed to create free online access to the biomedical literature.

Not to say I told you so, but I told you so. Well, I thought it was a good idea at the time, but I mean, the NIH’s policy had no enforcement teeth, so what motivation is there for scholars to take any time at all to submit a publication? Clearly, none. What I don’t understand is why this is such a big deal. Ok, ok, yes, it’s cutting into publisher’s profits on reprints. Maybe; that’s an empirical question. But even if we concede that it does, I still don’t understand why it’s a big deal. The NSF Grant General Conditions; section 20, Publications; subsection c, Copies for NSF states that:

The grantee is responsible for assuring that the cognizant NSF Program Officer is provided access to, either electronically or in paper form, a copy of every publication of material based on or developed under this award, clearly labeled with the award number and other appropriate identifying information, promptly after publication.

So if you get NSF funding you already have to submit a copy to a government agency. Of course, I don’t know what then happens to these publications. I’m thinking now that I may try to request one just to see if they give away or sell copies. Also, government publications are available for free from your local depository library. Of course the argument has been made before that the government and the public is paying for research twice. But why hasn’t anyone made the argument that if research is funded by a government agency, then any publication that come out of that research is a government publication?

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2 Responses to NIH Open Access policy, not so much

  1. JohnM says:

    It’s really disappointing that the Chronicle article doesn’t mention PubMed Central at all.

  2. Peter Suber says:

    You ask: “why hasn’t anyone made the argument that if research is funded by a government agency, then any publication that come out of that research is a government publication?”

    The answer is copyright. Work by government employees is uncopyrightable (in the public domain) from birth, but work by government grantees is copyrightable. The government can’t treat the latter like the former without amending copyright law, which faces fierce and well-funded opposition.

    However, many people in the open access movement (myself included) often make the related argument that there ought to be an open-access condition on publicly-funded research grants.

    The NIH is trying to live up to this principle with a weak policy (as you say, it has no enforcement teeth). But the CURES Act, introduced in December 2005, and the Federal Research Public Access Act, introduced two weeks ago, both try to live up to this principle with a strong policy (requiring, not merely requesting, compliance).

    To follow the developments, see my blog, Open Access News,


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