WASHINGTON — Under an obscure provision of a law that President Bush signed last week, most health researchers backed by federal grants must offer their findings free to the public a year after they're first published commercially.
Proponents say the measure will accelerate medical progress and improve biomedical education by sharing important results far more widely. It applies to nearly $28 billion a year in research sponsored by the National Institutes of Health, the biggest government supporter of U.S. life sciences. The NIH aids about 38,000 research projects, centers and contractors annually, mostly at colleges and universities.
Most biomedical researchers publish their findings in technical journals that can cost subscribers $1,000 or more annually. Articles also are sold individually or by the page, but the costs are proportional to journal subscription prices. Only a few provide free, open access to their results.
Under the new law, which is expected to be implemented within six months, researchers who receive NIH money must deposit electronic copies of all relevant peer-reviewed articles with the National Library of Medicine's online archive, PubMed Central.
Full texts of their articles will be publicly available and searchable on PubMed Central a year after they're published in journals.
Research librarians and universities pressed by tight budgets and soaring subscription fees won the new deal by persuading key lawmakers that the knowledge gained from taxpayer-funded research should be available free to all.
According to Heather Joseph, the executive director of the Scholarly Publishing and Academic Resources Coalition, a Washington-based library group, life science journal costs have seen "double-digit price increases annually for the last 15 to 20 years."
"There's no way that libraries have been seeing that kind of increase in their budgets," she added.
Those arguments, also pushed by a broader Alliance for Taxpayer Access, found sympathetic ears in two top Democrats: House Appropriations Committee Chairman David Obey of Wisconsin and Iowa Sen. Tom Harkin, the chairman of the Senate Appropriations subcommittee that oversees the NIH.
They resisted the objections of journal publishers and included the provision in the Consolidated Appropriations Act of 2008.
Under a voluntary program that began in 2005, NIH-funded researchers were encouraged but not required to make their peer-reviewed manuscripts available free. Only about 5 percent did so, according to Joseph.
To publishers who argued that they'd lose the revenue necessary to edit and produce top-quality journals, public-access advocates responded that most life sciences-journal readership occurs within a year of publication. If so, and if that continues to be the case, the publishers' revenue loss might be small.
Journal publishers expect far worse, and say they'll go to court to argue that the measure infringes on copyrights. The Washington-based Association of American Publishers, the principal trade association for the U.S. book-publishing industry, fought for their cause.