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Access to NIH-Funded Research Information -- Public Comment Period to November 16, 2004

October 26, 2004

A note from The field of medicine is constantly evolving. As a result, parts of this article may be outdated. Please keep this in mind, and be sure to visit other parts of our site for more recent information!

The U.S. National Institutes of Health is seeking public comment on a proposal for "establishing a comprehensive, searchable resource of NIH-funded research results and providing free access for all" -- but with important limitations. The proposal, summarized in a single page, is at

Basically, NIH plans to ask its grantees to submit a final manuscript to NIH after it has been peer reviewed, when it is accepted for publication. Six months after it is published (or sooner if the publisher agrees), NIH will publish it for free public access on its PubMed Central database, where it will be available without charge online.

The New England Journal of Medicine strongly supported this proposal (with one exception) in an editorial on September 23, 2004, which indicates where much of the biomedical research field may be going at this time:

"... NIH proposes that all publications that arise from NIH-sponsored research be made available free to the public within six months after they have been published. We applaud and endorse this effort; our actions speak for themselves. Since May 2001, we have offered the research articles we publish free on our Web site six months after the publication date, and this includes all research articles, not just those funded by the NIH. In addition, for more than two years we have provided everything we publish free to the 120 most economically disadvantaged countries in the world. ..." However, the Journal is concerned that the proposal is silent about copyright, which could allow commercial misuse of its materials, such as the widespread spam email recently citing the Journal to help sell human growth hormone for unapproved uses.


Comments on Proposal

Access to the results of biomedical research, most of it funded by taxpayers, has been a serious and increasing problem for years. The crux of the problem is that the journals, which seldom help fund the research, restrict the results in order to be able to charge for their publications, interfering with the free flow of biomedical information. The NIH proposal, much weakened over earlier versions, is in our view a step forward but a long way from fixing the problem.

  • Even if the article is published promptly, we will still be left with a six-month semi blackout period immediately after publication, during which new articles will still be expensive or difficult to get by persons not affiliated with large institutions.

  • Also, if the work is not accepted for publication, does it ever get released on PubMed or elsewhere? The researchers may have an incentive to keep it non-public for years, in the hope that eventually they will get around to submitting it again and some journal will publish it -- so the public may lose access to the results of taxpayer-funded research forever. This problem is not inherent in the research process but happens because some journals demand that the work not appear elsewhere, due to their business model -- and while some journals do not make this demand, the researchers still have incentive to keep all options open by maintaining secrecy. Perhaps there could be a stopgap period such as a year (or less if the researcher and the journal, if any, agreed), after which a summary of the results, provided by the researchers to the NIH as part of their grant report, would appear on PubMed if a published paper were not available. Even better, a short summary, like an extended abstract, would appear immediately on PubMed; the journal could still have six months' exclusive on the fully reviewed, published report.

    Work that never gets published can still be important. For example, negative results may not interest journals even if doctors and scientists need to know them. Competitive business pressures also can inhibit publication. And important new ideas are usually not recognized at first.

  • Another issue is that the business model of biomedical journals inherently favors large institutions over small ones, and under the proposal this will remain true during the important six-month after new research first appears. For AIDS Treatment News, access to medical research has always been a serious problem, and is getting worse. The first day any freshman attends a major university he or she has far better access to biomedical publications that this writer ever had or ever will. While an independent researcher can sometimes get into a university medical library under various restrictions, and photocopy articles from the shelves, the libraries are now moving toward buying only electronic access in order to save money, and publishers make them agree to deny use to those who are not students, faculty, or in other defined relationships with the university. And while I can often buy individual articles from the journal publishers, the prices can be up to $40 or more to download a single article -- much more than 100 times what the download costs, and probably more than 100 times what a major university pays for exactly the same access. AIDS Treatment News can afford to subscribe to some journals, but not all that we need to follow.

  • We may also comment to NIH that while we agree with The New England Journal of Medicine that copyright is needed to prevent abuse, the details suggested elsewhere in their editorial (not quoted here) need attention. As we read the editorial, the Journal might not provide full text for the search, but only provide it after a reader had selected that article. This would restrict the search and the presentation of information, as the Web makes possible much greater flexibility in searching, comparing, collecting, and displaying parts of articles.

Comment: New Idea for Selling Online Access

While exploring possibilities for selling access to articles on the Web, I came up with what appears to be a remarkable way to charge even very small amounts of money online, almost eliminating transaction costs and encouraging supporters to share paid access. This idea uses a self-reproducing payment code -- which seems to be new, and has more consequences than one might imagine. Since it may help writers, musicians, and other artists make a living from their work, I set up a Web site to describe it,

For journal publishers, this system would allow them to make large sales of online access that could then be broken up at will for resale to small organizations or individuals. The end user would have a short, secret code to pay for access to articles, even from publishers he or she had no prior relationship with. Publishers could charge whatever they wanted, as now. But this system would open the door to lower-price business models, by almost eliminating the transaction cost and hassle of individual sales, while automatically aggregating them into larger transactions that would interest publishers. Reselling access to individuals or other specialized markets could be a proper business, not just an afterthought of a different business entirely, as it is with most biomedical journals today.

My summary and full article are at the Web site below; comments to would be appreciated (please use the word "micropayment" in the Subject line, to bypass spam control). I have no business interest in this idea, but want to start a discussion in order to test and improve the design, and make it available for anyone interested.

Any blog or other discussion forum will be announced at

ISSN # 1052-4207

Copyright 2004 by John S. James. Permission granted for noncommercial reproduction, provided that our address and phone number are included if more than short quotations are used.

A note from The field of medicine is constantly evolving. As a result, parts of this article may be outdated. Please keep this in mind, and be sure to visit other parts of our site for more recent information!

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This article was provided by AIDS Treatment News. It is a part of the publication AIDS Treatment News.
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