• Written By: Alfredo A. Sadun, MD, PhD

    Two opposing articles and an editorial in the same issue of the Journal of Neuro-Ophthalmology highlight the impending opportunities and threats due to a recent revision to the NIH Public Access Policy  that makes this previously voluntary policy mandatory. The new policy, which takes effect April 7, mandates that peer-reviewed journal articles accepted for publication and written by investigators who received National Institutes of Health funding for the work must be submitted by their authors to the National Library of Medicine's PubMed Central for free open access public dissemination. Simply stated, any author who has received NIH funding for research is expected to upload the final version of articles covering this work to PubMed Central immediately after publication.

    This may create a sea change for scientific journals and their systems of peer review. There could be unintended consequences fundamental to the way scholars do business. But those afraid of how this might upend our present system may want to reflect on the statistics quoted in one of the editorials: 90% of papers published in academic journals are never cited and 50% are never read by anyone other than their authors, referees and journal editors.

    The article in favor of this new policy argues that open access allows increased access to scientific literature by individual researchers. This will help redress a serious problem, as skyrocketing subscription prices have reduced the number of journals maintained by libraries and in particular specialty libraries, the authors say. The new NIH Public Access Policy also responds to those who point out that taxpayer dollars support research and researchers, according to this article. Although scholars do all of the heavy lifting, they sign away their copyright control to publishers who only permit access to the published research through university libraries at very high prices. Access for scholars and other consumers is limited by what they can afford.

    In contradistinction, another article argues that this new legislation will adversely impact scientific journals and the very process of peer review. Peer reviewed journals will no longer be financially sustainable, and those that survive might need to raise their subscription rates, according to the author. With fewer trusted peer-reviewed journals remaining viable, the public could ultimately lose more than it gains from open access legislation.

    Finally, an editorial in the same journal issue notes the rapid rise in scientific journal subscription costs of 227% from 1986 to 2002 compared to the increase in the consumer price index of 64% during the same period. The author describes various movements towards open access and mentions that some publishers already have forms of open or public access. Open access is here to stay as part of the new paradigm, and although the new mandate requires all NIH-funded research to be published in PubMed Central, it is likely that this will be but one of many new forms of open access, the author concludes.