Open Access to Health Research: Highlights from the NIH Public Access Policy panel

By Adriana Benedict

As of 2008, the NIH Public Access Policy requires “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.”  Four years later, approximately 80% of NIH-funded research articles make their way into PubMed Central.  Institutional Open Access resolutions such as Harvard’s Open Access Policy have helped accommodate the NIH Public Access Policy requirements, but Harvard Medical School and Harvard School of Public Health have yet to adopt it.

In May, the Harvard Library Faculty Advisory Council issued a public letter calling on faculty to promote open access scholarly publishing, noting that “Many large journal publishers have made the scholarly communication environment fiscally unsustainable and academically restrictive”.  In a Petrie-Flom Center-sponsored Open Access Week panel (moderated by Open Access Liaisons Scott Lapinski and June Casey), Peter Suber, Amy Brand, Winston Hide and Patrick Taylor discussed the challenges and opportunities for progress towards achieving open access to health research.  Highlights from the panel are presented below, and the video should be available on the Petrie-Flom website shortly.

Peter Suber provided important historical and legal context for the NIH Public Access Policy.  He explained that, contrary to suggestions by publishers that the NIH Public Access Policy is “inconsistent” with copyright law, the policy does not violate current copyright law, because the author, the copyright holder, has the right to dispose of her copyright as she wishes.  Interestingly, Suber noted that the publishing industry has yet to affirm that the NIH Public Access Policy is actually harming them.  In light of this, there is a critical opportunity for the Federal Research Public Access Act (FRPAA), which is currently before both the House and the Senate, to pass with bipartisan support.

Amy Brand shared her experiences working with ORCID, an open registry that links researchers with unique identifiers to streamline the process of manuscript submissions, grant applications and researcher profile maintenance.  She explained how innovative tools such as ORCID assist the faculty hiring process in taking a more comprehensive approach to evaluating the impact of scholarly research through inclusion of non-traditional scholarly contributions and alternative metrics (such as the “H” factor).

Patrick Taylor “put a human face” on open access policies, describing the lack of interdisciplinary cross-pollination in issues such as conflicts of interest as a result of restrictive copyright provisions that effectively segregate library journal subscriptions in law, medicine, ethic and other fields.  He told about a personal experiment he conducted to try and learn about a rare cancer affecting his family without using any of his faculty log-in privileges.  He found that it was virtually impossible, and noted that this is a daily struggle faced by parents at Children’s Hospital where he works.

Winston Hide reflected on his experiences as the former associate editor of Genomics.  In this capacity, he came to realize that a majority of the researchers he was editing for, including those from his home country of South Africa, were unable to access the most recent genomics research, including articles from publications that they themselves were published in.  Hide noted that HINARI, the WHO program that provides researchers from some of the lowest income countries with access to a selection of journals, fills only a tiny fraction of the access gap.  After significant efforts to make Genomics open access came to a head, he publicly resigned from his position, writing in the Guardian that he “could no longer work for a system that puts profit over access to research.”  He was struck by the sheer volume of the email responses he got from researchers not only around the world, but also from smaller liberal arts colleges in the US that simply can’t afford the high prices of journal subscriptions.  In his field of genomics, data mining—which generally requires copyright permissions above and beyond those provided by standard journal subscriptions—is a critical tool for identifying existing drug candidates for affordable, generic medicines for the developing world.

To close Open Access Week 2012, the Right to Research Coalition partnered with PhD Comics to develop a concise and compelling video explaining the basics and importance of open access. 


Adriana Lee Benedict was a Student Fellow during the 2012-2013 academic year. At the time, she was a second-year student at Harvard Law School interested in promoting access to medicines and biomedical research. She graduated from Harvard College with a concentration in History and Science, a secondary concentration in government, and a certificate in Mind/Brain/Behavior, and subsequently completed a Master of Science in the Department of Global Health and Population at the Harvard School of Public Health. Adriana pursued health and human rights work in Kenya, Tanzania, India, Peru and Colombia, and is was the co-chair of the Harvard chapter of the Universities Allied for Essential Medicines. Adriana’s research interests lie at the intersection of intellectual property and health law, public interest protections in international trade regimes, pharmaceutical research and licensing, and the international right to health. As a Student Fellow, Adriana analyzed regulatory implementation of the NIH Public Access Policy alongside an evaluation of alternative approaches to pharmaceutical R&D, with a special consideration of the impact of international trade and investment agreements on domestic R&D policies.

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