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Taxpayers pony up $28 |billion annually for the National Institutes of Health, the world's largest source of funding for medical research. The payoff, in addition to the occasional spectacular breakthrough, is more than 60,000 published studies each year.
The first beneficiaries of that knowledge aren't doctors or patients. They are the publishers of the journals that review, print and sell the results to subscribers. Your tax dollars may have financed the clinical trial of a new treatment regime for the rare disease you've contracted, but you'll probably still have to pay to see the results.
Now, some lawmakers are trying to increase the public's access to this research. In a new funding bill for the NIH, the House of Representatives required that the results of the studies the government funds must be made freely available online within 12 months of their publication. The requirement builds on a 2-year-old NIH initiative to gather research in a free website called PubMed Central. That initiative was voluntary. But so few researchers complied -- less than 5% in the first year -- that proponents of "open access" to scientific research have lobbied to make it mandatory.
The main opposition has come from publishers, who argue that making research available free could ruin the smaller journals that serve some medical specialties. Libraries may stop subscribing to costly niche journals if they know the material will be available for free within a year. And if those journals die off, researchers will lose the valuable services they supply, such as rounding up experts to review studies before they're published.
While publishers have an important role to play, particularly in judging a study's credibility, that doesn't mean they're entitled to squeeze cash from that study in perpetuity. An open access requirement could force changes in some journals' business models, but a growing number have found ways to succeed while making research available for free -- for example, by charging researchers fees for publication. And the 12-month period of exclusivity enables publishers to continue selling journals to those with the most immediate need to see them.
At the same time, opening up access to NIH-funded studies will increase their impact on researchers around the world. That's very much in the public interest. The more information that's available, the more chance someone will leverage it into another medical breakthrough.