WASHINGTON - It is barely a drop of ink in the gargantuan omnibus spending bill that Congress just passed. But a provision that would give the public free access to the results of federally funded biomedical research represents a sweet victory for a coalition of researchers and activists who lobbied for the language for years.
Under the bill's terms, scientists getting grant money from the National Institutes of Health would now have to submit to the NIH a final copy of their research papers when those papers are accepted for publication in a journal. An NIH database would then post those papers, free to the public, within 12 months after publication.
The idea is that taxpayers, who have already paid for the research, should not have to subscribe to expensive scientific journals to read about the results.
That populist line - spearheaded by patient advocacy groups seeking easier access to the latest medical findings and supported by libraries whose budgets have had trouble keeping up with rising journal subscription costs - ultimately overwhelmed objections from journal publishers.
Those firms had complained bitterly that proponents bypassed the congressional committees that could have carefully compared the new approach to less disruptive systems for making information available to the public, some of which are already being used by other science-funding agencies.
Among the publishers' concerns is that they would lose income from paid subscriptions, which would undermine their ability to sponsor educational activities and peer reviews. Of equal concern, they say, the policy might violate copyright law, a potential legal tangle.
"The issue isn't finished yet," said Allan Adler, vice president for legal and governmental affairs at the Association of American Publishers, which lobbied hard against passage. "It's not as simple as some have made this out to be."
That attitude rankled Heather Joseph, executive director of the Scholarly Publishing and Academic Resources Coalition, which led the fight for the open-access language.
"The basic reason we went to bat so hard for this was because we thought it was the right thing to do with taxpayers' science," Joseph said. "Now there will be $29 billion in taxpayer investments freely available to the public," she said, referring to the NIH medical research budget.