T H E   N I H    C A T A L Y S T     M A Y  –  J U N E   2005



by Jacqueline Ruttimann

As of May 2, all NIH-funded researchers are being asked to comply with a new NIH policy aimed at providing the public with free and timely access to published findings arising from research funded in whole or in part by NIH.

Investigators are requested to submit copies of their accepted, peer-reviewed manuscripts to the NLM’s PubMed Central (PMC) as quickly as possible—and in no case beyond one year—after publication in a scientific journal.

NIH-funded researchers encompass extramural and intramural scientists; the manuscript to be submitted to PMC is the final version accepted for journal publication, which includes all modifications generated during the publishing peer-review process but not any copyediting that may ensue before the article is actually published. That distinction will be made clear online.

Although NIH desires and expects that most researchers will follow these directions, compliance is voluntary, NIH Director Elias Zerhouni noted at a Town Hall meeting here in March to discuss the new policy. Relationships that an investigator may have with a certain publisher or professional society might not be compatible with submission of a manuscript to a free public website, he said.

Precedent Setting

About one-third of attendees at the meeting were intramural scientists—a cohort of NIH-funded researchers that Zerhouni called upon "to lead the way" in broadening public access to government-funded research findings. He noted that intramural scientists "have the right to publish online immediately."

Not only will online access via PMC transmit to the public the fruits of research carried out with taxpayer dollars, but it will also enable NIH to monitor and archive the output of funded research, as well as facilitate scientists’ search for published data relevant to their own pursuits.

Moreover, Zerhouni said, "It’s really creating a precedent . . . that a federal agency like the NIH has the right to create an archive of publicly funded research. . . . This is a pro-science policy."

The policy was motivated in part by requests for access by members of Congress and patient advocacy groups, who started to inquire why all of NIH-sponsored publications were not available for their viewing, especially in light of the finding that most people with Internet access search that source for medical information before going to their doctor.

(The idea of PubMed Central itself was first proposed in 1999 by then–NIH Director Harold Varmus, who advocated free public access to the world’s biomedical literature [see The NIH Catalyst, July-August 1999]. PMC became operational in 2000.)

The proposal that all NIH-funded research be submitted to PMC appeared in the Federal Register in September 2004; it generated more than 6,200 comments, many in support, Zerhouni said. But there were also some objections based on fears of a dwindling subscription base that, in the case of some nonprofit scientific societies, would mean less money to support research and training programs. The proposed policy was finalized in February.

Speaking at the Town Hall meeting, Norka Ruiz Bravo, deputy director for extramural research, emphasized that that scientists will benefit from publication in PMC: It will fulfill grant-progress reporting requirements; the contents of the work will be cross-indexed to other federal databases, such as GenBank; and, she pointed out, investigators who have archived publications in PubMed Central get more hits on those articles.

David Lipman, director of the NLM’s National Center for Biotechnology Information, noted that as of October 2004, 160 journals were participating in PMC (which increased to 178 by February 2005) and that more than 2 million people accessed it that month. By the end of 2005, he said, PMC will contain about 800,000 articles.http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/Genbank/GenbankOverview.html

Stepping into PubMed Central

Lipman walked the NIH intramural community through the process of submitting a publication to PMC.

The first step for intramural scientists is to log on to the website,entering one’s NIH ID and providing the information requested, such as the title and authors of the manuscript. Next, the scientist sends the Word version of the publication to PMC, where it is converted to a standard PDF format and then returned to the submitting scientist for approval (figures can be embedded in the document or submitted separately). At this time, the scientist is asked to indicate the date the manuscript may be released online to the public.

"The goal," Lipman said, "is for it to take less than 10 minutes from start to finish."

Extramural scientists will need an Electronic Research Administration (eRA) Commons account to transfer their work to PMC, continued Israel Lederhendler, director of the Office of Electronic Research and Reports Management. He noted that about two-thirds of extramural grantees already have such an account.

It’s anticipated that by October 2005, submission to PMC itself will serve as a complementary means of completing the annual required progress report, he said. Beyond that, a working group will be established to devise ways to use PMC and the data within the archive to assist institutes with their extramural portfolio oversight activities.

During the question-and-answer period, copyright emerged as a thorny issue. A memo Zerhouni sent in February to intramural scientists states that "NIH strongly encourages authors and institutions to exercise their right to inform publishers, and if necessary specify in any copyright transfer agreement, that the author or institution retains the right to provide their manuscripts to PMC for public accessibility as soon as possible after journal publication." Some scientists expressed concern that a publisher might opt against printing an article the author intends to place in PMC.

Lipman commented that many of the "best pieces" published in biomedical journals come from NIH intramural and extramural researchers and that most journals will want to cooperate. He cited Nature as an example. Barbara McGarey, NIH general counsel, observed that the work of intramural scientists is inherently in the public domain—and that there is no copyright on government work.

Ruiz Bravo noted that the policy was purposely made flexible in case of recalcitrant publishers—but she foresaw a "culture change" that would minimize that situation.



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