Open access publishing is slowly gaining a foothold in scholarly publishing.  The availability of scholarly publications for research through open access publishing is critical to the feasibility of an all digital research library.

In 2007 President George W. Bush signed a bill allowing the National Institute of Health to publish research as open access documents.  The NIH Public Access Policy implements Division G, Title II, Section 218 of PL 110-161 (Consolidated Appropriations Act, 2008) states:

SEC. 218. 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.

Some members of Congress are trying to stop this policy from spreading to other federal agencies, with backing from the publishing lobby.   H.R. 801 was introduced by Representative John Conyers on February 3, 2009. Called the “Fair Copyright in Research Works Act,” this bill seeks to stop public access publishing from spreading to other Federal agencies.  This bill, or a similar version, has been introduced in previous sessions of Congress, but has been overshadowed by larger problems.  However, Representative Conyers, who oversees the House Judiciary Committee, has recently abolished the subcommittee on Courts, the Internet and Intellectual Policy.  It is believed that Rep. Conyers made this move in an effort to pass H.R. 801 this session.

Peter Suber believes that the success of the NIH Public Access Policy will provide key evidence to support the defeat of H.R. 801.  Currently, the NIH publishes 80,000 papers per year to advance research in every area of biomedicine. Even the most reluctant publishers will be forced to adapt to open access or fail if they wish to remain relevant.  Peter Suber foresees a lawsuit from the publishing industry lobby based on copyright protection, but predicts that this will fail.  The publishing industry will soon reach a tipping point in favor of open access publishing.

Mr. Suber also believes the current economic recession will play a role in reaching this tipping point, and not simply by rendering H.R. 801 as unimportant.  He states, “If TA publishers found OA journal business models unattractive a few years ago, one reason was that subscription models still looked better.  But the balance of attraction has to change as the odds of survival under a subscription model decline…and today at least three [OA] publishers are reporting profits, including BMC…which is based in expensive London.” (¶14, SPARC newsletter).

Even the most prestigious universities are not immune from financial pressures in the current economy. Every budget item is weighed and scrutinized, and in this economic climate, paying for access to subscription databases and  publishing contracts is relegated to the lower levels of the priority list.   On March 20, 2009, M.I.T. announced that ALL faculty research would be published in a free online repository.   The press release mentions that although other universities, like Harvard and Stanford, publish research from select departments as open access documents, MIT would set a higher standard by publishing research from every department in its online repository.

Mr. Suber tempers expectations that complete open access will be reached in 2009, much less 2010.  “[M]aking predictions based on what appears to be wise rather than what appears to be unavoidable, or treating reasons as causes, is most likely to pay off when the relevant players are informed and rational.”  (¶23, SPARC newsletter).  Indeed, those who oppose open access publishing surely believe that they are ones who are “informed and rational.”

As the quantity and quality of open access publications improve, so too will the likelihood that an all digital library will come into fruition.

Works cited:

Fair Copyright in Research Works Act.  Accessed March 29, 2009.

Plotkin, Natasha.  MIT Will Publish All Faculty Articles Free In Online Repository
The Tech.  Online Edition. Volume 129, Issue 14.  Published: March 20, 2009.   Article accessed March 29, 2009.

Suber, Peter.  Predictions for Open Access, 2009.  SPARC Open Access Newsletter, Issue #218.  December 2, 2008. Accessed March 30, 2009.

Website, U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.  Accessed March 29, 2009.