Open Is Not Free: NIH Public Access Policy in the Spotlight

March 28, 2008


By John W. Henson, MD, FAAN, Science Editor
Neil A. Busis, MD, FAAN, Practice and Technology Editor,
Authors' disclosure


On April 7, 2008, the National Institutes of Health (NIH) will mandate that all peer-reviewed publications arising from federally funded research be deposited into PubMed Central (PMC) within one year of publication. The move toward online access of published medical literature is well-intentioned, but the policy produces some significant dilemmas. In the end, it is hard to predict whether the barriers to medical progress will be raised or lowered. dissects the potential ramifications of the NIH policy, and Neurology Editor-in-Chief John Noseworthy, MD, FAAN, answers questions about this important topic.

This article showcases a new feature, in which we ask you, our readers, to contribute your opinions on the latest issues in neurology—see the end of this article for more details.

See Q & A with John Noseworthy, Editor-in-Chief of Neurology.

A Move to Open Access

The momentum towards "open access" would seem to be unstoppable. The recent mandate that, as of April 7, 2008, all peer-reviewed publications arising from federally funded research be deposited into PubMed Central (PMC) within one year of publication, has made this change in content availability inevitable.

This is great news for researchers—on the surface. Full-text retrieval of most journal articles currently requires a substantial fee for one-time article download, an expensive institutional online journal license, a trip to the library, or a personal subscription. Although many open access journals are now currently available, wider online access should lower barriers to research advances. While the value of unimpeded access to research literature is clear, interesting dilemmas are raised with these changes, since open access will not in fact be free.

NIH Public Access Policy

The Director of the National Institutes of Health shall require that all investigators funded by the NIH submit or have submitted for them to the National Library of Medicine's PubMed Central an electronic version of their final, peer-reviewed manuscripts upon acceptance for publication, to be made publicly available no later than 12 months after the official date of publication: Provided, That the NIH shall implement the public access policy in a manner consistent with copyright law.

See FAQ.


While most scientists applaud easy access to research information, there are significant concerns raised by these approaches. Published papers serve as a principal vehicle of medical progress. Journals raise the quality of research by the process of peer review and through professional publication standards. Many publishers worry that the Public Access policy will threaten subscriptions and advertising. Were publishers to become endangered, universal online access to the medical literature might raise, rather than lower, barriers to medical progress.

Journal publishers have taken a number of different approaches to open access. Springer Publishing announced its "Open Choice" policy, wherein it will submit newly published papers to PMC on behalf of authors for a fee of $3,000. The Journal of Neuroscience and Annals of Neurology offer similar programs. Other journals, including Neurology, authorize the deposit of articles in PMC free of charge starting twelve months after publication (this will be shortened to nine or ten months starting April 7, 2008; see responses below. Twelve months seems quite long, given the rapid advances occurring in every field of research, but a $2,000 or $3,000 charge for immediate deposit in PMC is a remarkable addition to research costs.

Who Will Pay the New Costs?

The Howard Hughes Medical Institute has expressed its support for the Springer Open Choice policy, and will pay $2,000 for each paper published by its researchers. The NIH states that these charges are an acceptable budget item in grant applications. Open access charges might prompt publishing companies to reduce the subscription price of their print publications, but this is in no way guaranteed. The costs associated with maintenance of the PMC will be substantial, and the archive will duplicate those of journal's websites. These charges could prove an unfair burden to small research groups, which may be less able to pay for open access charges. Some labs might be able to pay to have results of lesser value published in expensive journals. And in all cases, copyright concerns are incompletely understood.

Q & A with John Noseworthy, Editor-in-Chief of Neurology

To delve further into these topics, asked the Editor-in-Chief of Neurology, John Noseworthy, MD, FAAN, to comment on Public Access. The Editor-in-Chief of Annals of Neurology declined the interview. Dr. Noseworthy, on behalf of readers, thank you for answering these questions on the NIH Public Access Policy. How will papers submitted to Neurology be affected by the new policy?

Dr. Noseworthy: Authors of all papers derived from research funded by the NIH will be required to deposit accepted manuscripts to PubMed Central (PMC). Neurology will comply with the new policy and is planning to set up a mechanism to deposit these papers to PMC on the authors' behalf. Using 2003 data, NLM (National Library of Medicine) estimates that, on an annual basis, publications resulting from NIH-funded research represent approximately 10 percent of the articles in nearly 5,000 journals indexed by PubMed. We do not have an exact figure for our journal but anticipate the proportion of all peer-reviewed content in Neurology might be similar to this estimate. The advantages of wider online access to research literature seem obvious, but there are dilemmas. The 12-month delay allowed by the policy seems quite long, given the rapid advance of research, for instance, while a $2,000 to $3,000 charge for immediate deposit in PMC is a stunning addition to research costs. Neurology will authorize the deposit of articles in PubMed Central free of charge starting 12 months after publication. How do you see the pros and cons of these two approaches, and how did Neurology go about choosing its policy?

Dr. Noseworthy: The current Neurology policy was put in place to protect revenues generated by subscriptions during the first year after an article is published. We will be changing this policy before the April 7, 2008 date on which the NIH public access policy becomes effective, so that we comply with the new mandate to allow authors to deposit materials in PMC before the 12 months has elapsed, perhaps 9 or 10 months after publication. We are planning to work with our publisher so that we deposit the final published article with all copyedits and final changes to PMC and thus have greater control over the timing of the deposits and the quality of the content.

A longer delay to the public of being able to access the articles protects the Journal's rights to distribute content, allowing us to recoup publications costs and to provide additional funds for support of the Society. We have allowed authors to deposit articles into PMC free of charge after 1 year, when the demand for viewing the articles has diminished somewhat.

The earlier deposit of materials into PMC will result in some loss of subscription revenue for the Journal as we may lose current subscribers who are willing to wait for the content to appear in PMC. It is important to note that we will not lose revenue reprint sales to authors and pharmaceutical companies, as we will retain copyright for further distribution of the content. Will there be major unintended consequences?

Dr. Noseworthy: Accelerated public access publishing may deprive small publishers such as AEI (AAN Enterprises, Inc.) with subscription income and make it harder for them to continue to enhance and market journal products, such as online CME offerings, that are benefits to Society members and other scholars. However, NIH will reimburse actual and reasonable publication costs and author fees in grants and contracts for fees we may charge for depositing materials into PMC ourselves. Smaller research groups funded by foundations will not be expected to pay additional author fees to Neurology, as content published by these authors will not need to be deposited in PMC. What has your experience been to date with Neurology's approach to Public Access?

Dr. Noseworthy: To date, Neurology has not taken an active role in the deposit of articles into PMC, except to specify the 12-month delay. A search reveals that relatively few articles from Neurology have been deposited by authors into PMC to this point. Would you give us any additional thoughts on Public Access and Neurology's response to the policy?

Dr. Noseworthy: Our policy has been close to that now mandated by law, making anticipated changes in our copyright agreements minor. We anticipate that changing the delay of deposit into PMC from 12 to 9 or 10 months will have little effect on subscription revenues. Authors whose studies are funded by NIH, of course, will need to perform an additional step in the process of publishing their articles.

Conclusions and Request for Reader Comment

The move towards online access of published medical literature is well-intentioned, but because of the small percentage of papers affected and the substantial delay in submission to PMC, it may ultimately have limited impact. A number of journals have instituted a response that allows immediate deposit of articles into PMC while incurring a hefty fee, which will raise the cost of doing science and which may have unintended consequences on quality. The cost of maintaining PMC is unlikely to be trivial, representing another drain on public funding for research. In conclusion, it is hard to predict whether this policy will lower or raise barriers to medical progress.

We want to know what our readers think of the Public Access policy described above. Please submit a comment using the editorial comments feature available below this article.

Authors' disclosure

The authors have nothing to disclose.