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Plan postpones public access to research

Science publishers prevailed against 1st NIH proposal

WASHINGTON -- An ambitious proposal to make the results of federally funded medical research available to the public quickly and for free has been scaled back by the National Institutes of Health under pressure from scientific publishers, who argued that it would cut their profits and harm the scientific enterprise they support.

The initial plan, encouraged by Congress and hailed by patient advocacy groups, called for the results of NIH-funded research to be posted on a publicly accessible website within six months after they are published in a scientific journal.

Most research results now are available only by subscription to the journal -- at a cost that often reaches into the thousands of dollars -- or on a pay-per-article basis that can cost $100 or more for two or three articles.

In the final version of the plan, however, the recommended six-month deadline for posting results has been extended to a year. That change has angered many advocates of public access, who have argued it isn't fair that taxpayers must either wait or ante up to see the results of research they have already paid for.

A scheduled announcement of the policy was abruptly canceled last week by the Department of Health and Human Services, of which the NIH is a part. Two sources within the department, speaking on the condition of anonymity because they are not authorized to speak for the department, said the announcement was delayed in order to keep it off the federal agenda until after yesterday's confirmation hearings for Michael Leavitt, President Bush's nominee to become Health and Human Services secretary.

Sensitivities about the relationship between the NIH and private industry are especially high these days. The agency has been pilloried in the past year by Congress and others for allowing many of its scientists to collaborate with drug and biotech companies in lucrative deals that raise conflict-of-interest issues.

Several NIH-watchers said one reason for canceling the rollout of the new plan might have been to avoid calling attention to what could be perceived as another instance of the agency failing to stand up to moneyed interests.

"There's been so much embarrassment flying around about transparency and the public interest at NIH, it's just coming to a head," said Bob Witeck, a spokesman for the Alliance for Taxpayer Access, which favors easier access to publicly funded scientific findings.

Several business coalitions had lobbied strenuously against the initial proposal, which they said would jeopardize many journals' existence by undercutting their paid subscriber base.

"The publishers were crawling all over the place," said Rick Johnson, director of the Scholarly Publishing and Academic Resources Coalition, an alliance of academic and research libraries. He and others have argued that few scientists or libraries would cancel their subscriptions just because NIH-funded content was available free elsewhere, because such research represents only a fraction of the content of most journals.

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