Letter to Secretary of the Department of Health and Human Services regarding NIH public access policy

February 3, 2005

The Honorable Michael Leavitt
Secretary of Health and Human Services
Hubert H. Humphrey Building
200 Independence Avenue, SW
Room 615F
Washington, DC 20201

Dear Secretary Leavitt:

The Association of College and Research Libraries (ACRL) is Americas largest association of academic libraries, with over 12,500 members representing university, college, and community college libraries. We are writing on behalf of ACRL to share with you our views on the recently released public access policy of the National Institutes of Health.

We are pleased that NIH has taken a significant step to improve public access to NIH-funded research. The new policy will increase access to the more than 60,000 research articles that result from NIH funding each year. At present virtually all of that research is accessible only through costly journals, many exceeding subscription prices of several thousand dollars a year, or through a pay-per-use services, which can exceed $30 per article download. The new NIH policy will make a significant portion of that research openly available to the public within a 12-month timeframe, following publication in a peer-reviewed journal.

While we believe the NIH policy is a clear step forward, we are concerned about some aspects of the policy and we encourage you and Dr. Zerhouni, Director of the NIH, to monitor its progress closely.

12-month time frame. In contrast to the plan that NIH issued for public comment, the new policy allows researchers to decide when their work will be made openly accessible within a period of 12 months. The earlier proposal – and also the recommendation of Congress – called for all research deposited in PubMed Central to be made available 6 months following publication. We believe that delays of up to twelve months, especially in biomedical fields where timeliness of research results is critical, serve neither the interests of science nor the public.

Voluntary policy. We are also concerned that the new policy is totally voluntary on the part of researchers, in contrast to what was originally recommended by the House of Representatives in their report accompany the NIH appropriations bill. We believe NIH has the authority to require deposit in PubMed Central and we hope that that option will be considered in the future, particularly if compliance is low.

Earlier access. We are pleased, however, that the new policy does give researchers the option to make their work openly accessible as soon as they choose, within the 12-month timeframe. This means that a substantial portion of NIH-funded research could be made available promptly to the public, depending on how the policy is implemented and also the manner in which the NIH research community responds to it. We urge NIH to do everything within its power to encourage NIH researchers to make their work openly accessible immediately upon publication and to make the process of choosing deposit and early open access as smooth and non-time-consuming as possible. We also hope that the policy will not put researchers in a difficult position of having to choose between the interests of their publishers and their funding agency.

Important of monitoring. We think it is especially important to establish a clear process for monitoring the relative success of the new policy. It is critical that NIH measure the proportion of all eligible research articles that are deposited into PubMed Central and also the average embargo period for all such material. If the data from such an evaluation process indicates the vast majority of NIH research is available to the public soon after publication, then the policy will be a clear success. On the other hand, if only a relatively small portion of eligible research is deposited or if that research has a lengthy average embargo period, then the policy will not be serving the advancement of scientific knowledge or the critical need of the public to have access to the latest biomedical research.

We hope that the NIH policy will indeed prove indeed prove effective and it will provide a model for other Health and Human Services agencies, as well as other agencies throughout the Federal government.

We will follow the implementation of the NIH policy with great interest in hopes that it does achieve our mutual goal of providing ready public access to publicly funded research.

In closing we would like to commend you on the comments you made during your recent confirmation hearings in which you expressed strong support for the principle that government-funded research ought to "add to the knowledge of an informed public generally and ought to be readily and easily available." We heartily agree with that sentiment.

Sincerely,

frances j. maloy signature
Francis Maloy, President
Association of College and Research Library

ray english signature
Ray English, Chair
ACRL Scholarly Communications Committee