Well, it’s about time! From the editorial at the New England Journal of Medicine:
A new era for online public access to the biomedical literature is about to begin. As of May 2, the National Institutes of Health (NIH) has asked the investigators it funds to submit voluntarily to PubMed Central (www.pubmedcentral.nih.gov) an electronic copy of any scientific report, on acceptance for publication, and to specify when the article should become public. According to the NIH, “Posting for public accessibility through [PubMed Central] is requested and strongly encouraged as soon as possible (and within twelve months of the publisher’s official date of final publication).”
Currently, about a third of the reports of recent NIH-funded research are publicly available in electronic form after a 12-month delay — but from a variety of repositories and in various formats, according to Dr. David Lipman, the director of the National Center for Biotechnology Information at the National Library of Medicine, where PubMed Central was developed and is operated. Thus, the centralized archive may become a leading electronic database of biomedical literature. Articles are available without charge to the user, and registration is not required. The NIH funds 212,000 researchers worldwide, and 5000 scientists are direct employees of the institutes. Each year, these researchers publish 60,000 to 65,000 articles, accounting for about 10 percent of the articles in the nearly 5000 journals indexed by PubMed. According to the NIH, “As the electronic article increasingly becomes the authoritative and most useful document for researchers, and as scientists are actually computing on the contents of these documents — the text itself as well as the associated data — the impermanence of the publishers’ Web sites presents a substantial risk. Creating such an archive is a historical and necessary NIH responsibility.”
The NIH was spurred to develop its public-access policy by congressional pressure mounted as part of the budget process and by groups, such as the Public Library of Science, advocating “open access” to the biomedical literature. According to Dr. Elias Zerhouni, director of the NIH, the goal is to make “a change in the landscape of how scientific information is made available to the public while preserving the viability of the peer-review process.”
The NIH’s initial proposal would have required that scientific reports supported by the institutes be made available at PubMed Central no later than six months after they appeared in a journal. Subsequently, the agency reviewed more than 6000 comments and revised the policy “to provide flexibility to ensure maximum participation,” Zerhouni said in February. The NIH, which has an annual budget of about $28 billion, estimates that the annual incremental costs of the public-access policy will be $2 million to $4 million. In addition to improving public access and creating a stable electronic archive of publications from NIH-funded research, the NIH plans to use the database to improve the management of its research investment, to monitor scientific productivity, and to help set research priorities.
As we have said earlier, this is good news for the public and for science. Scientific research is meant to be analyzed and discussed before its worth is determined. Unobstructed free access to research studies will improve the scientific review process, and indeed will improve science itself. Viva free science!