March 30, 2009

Cornell Librarians Protest Bill Closing Access to NIH Research

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This month, President Barack Obama signed into law a bill that would make the National Institutes of Health public access policy permanent, signaling a move towards greater transparency in academia. Under this policy, NIH-funded research, including work by Cornell faculty, will be publicly avaliable. However, another bill introduced in Congress last month seeks to reverse this public access policy and has prompted Cornell’s librarians to take action.
Since last April, the NIH required final, peer-reviewed manuscripts arising from research it funded to be submitted to PubMed Central upon acceptance for publication.
PubMed Central is a digital archive of biomedical and life sciences research available to the public. Each month, nearly 3,000 new biomedical manuscripts are deposited in PubMed Central for public access. As a result, patients, educators and students are able to view new research at no charge. At the same time, NIH can monitor the taxpayer-funded research more effectively.
“One main improvement would be for the developing countries and community colleges that cannot afford expensive subscription fees to academic journals,” said Prof. Thomas Cleland, psychology, whose research on cognition and smell is available on PubMed Central.
Peter Hirtle, senior policy advisor for the Cornell Library, said that because the policy requires publicly funded research to be available to the public no later than 12 months after publication, “people have access to the most recent research in fields where currency is very important.”
The policy would impact many research teams and faculty members at Cornell, where NIH funding is the lifeblood for a large proportion of research. In January 2008, NIH funds accounted for about 40 percent of the research dollars awarded to Cornell University and Weill Cornell Medical College, according to John Saylor, the associate university librarian for scholarly resources and special collections.
The NIH is part of the Department of Health and Human Services, the largest funder of research at Cornell. According to the Office of the Vice Provost of Research, the DHHS accounted for more than 50 percent of federally sponsored research — or over $190 million per fiscal year — in both 2007 and 2008.
From the perspective of the Cornell Library, the NIH public access policy provides a state-of-the-art digital repository where research can be preserved. The policy thus helps solve the problems libraries face in meeting their role as repositories for published research.
Last month, Rep. John Conyers (D-Mich.) submitted a bill that could reverse these new developments in the NIH policy. This bill, H.R. 801, if successfully passed, would make it illegal for the government to mandate the availability of publically funded research.
Termed the “Fair Copyright in Research Works Act,” this bill addresses publishers’ concerns that public access to a work could undercut their copyright interest to control and charge access to the work that they publish.
This bill prohibits any condition that would interfere with the transfer of the copyright of a work from its creator to its publisher.
A legislative summary of the bill states that it “prohibits any federal agency from … asserting any rights in material developed under any funding agreement that restrain or limit the acquisition or exercise of copyrights in [a publicly funded work].”
In response to this bill, the Cornell Library drafted a petition letter. Two weeks after the bill was first referred to the House Judiciary Committee, University Librarian Anne Kenney signed the letter and sent it to Rep. Maurice Hinchey (D-22nd District).
The letter, which criticizes the bill as an “ill-conceived piece of legislation,” reflects the administration’s position on this issue, stated Jacqueline Powers, director of federal relations, in an email.
The letter underscores that “prior to any transfer of copyright to a publisher,” a publisher does not have copyright to works they have not authored or edited; the copyright to the piece resides in the author.
The letter reads: “[The NIH public access policy] does not impinge on publisher copyrights since agreements to accept NIH funding (and any concomitant licenses that accompany that funding) are made long before authors begin to negotiate copyright transfers with publishers.” To assert otherwise, states the letter, is “thus turning two centuries of copyright law on its head.”
The letter suggests that open access does not deter the publishing of academic work: “to our knowledge … no publisher has refused to publish an article because of the existence of a prior non-exclusive license to NIH. Indeed, hundreds of publishers are actively collaborating with NIH on the implementation of the system.”
Stephen Kresovich, vice provost for life sciences, acknowledged that some faculty members had expressed concerns about the bill, and added that “there will be plenty of concern if the bill gets pushed through.”
One argument that opponents of the NIH public access policy assert is that it reduces the revenue that publishers receive from subscriptions when the same articles will soon be available for free. Lowered profits would curtail the process of peer review, which provides quality checks on research, and maintains the standards of scientific inquiry.
However, Hirtle, who helped draft Cornell’s letter, said that “there is reason to be suspicious about claims about costs of peer review, which is often be done for free.”
Saylor who also assisted in drafting the letter, added that this bill ultimately caters to the interests of commercial publishers, “whose goals are to maximize profits.”
Both Hirtle and Saylor noted that concerns that the public may not be able to grasp some of the published material “should not translate to a mandate that only a chosen priesthood can see it.”
Last week, the bill was referred to the Subcommittee on Courts and Competition Policy in Congress. It could take months before the bill is voted on.