In February 2005, NIH announced a new policy for published findings from publicly funded research to be made publicly available - basically making the information resulting from federally funded research available to the taxpayers.*
Naturally, news of this new NIH policy sparked a lot of talk in academia (especially libraries) and among the publishers. By the time of the 2005 announcement, the NIH had backed off from requiring this new policy, and just strongly recommended it. This year, legislation on this topic made its way to Congress and the issue is once again on the table - should we have free access to the published findings of publicly funded research? The issue is not as simple as it might seem. Researchers live and die by their funding and the resulting publications - if they cannot publish in the most prestigious journals (if the best journals refuse to allow authors to make their articles freely available in compliance with the policy), it can severely, negatively affect their careers. And the publishers, many of whom currently make unbelievable profits (by the way - there is a rapid and dramatic consolidation of academic scientific publishers underway, with only a couple of major players out there and almost exclusively all non-U.S. companies), could be significantly financially impacted if people do not need to buy subscriptions to get the research (remember, publishers are not in it for the greater good - these are profit-based companies or those who at least need to be cost neutral). So, what to do?
Now, most librarians are of the 'all information should be free' mentality, and while that's great, I cannot help but think it is not realistic and sticking to it as the only solution will continue to polarize both sides and potentially fail to make progress on an important issue. But back to the NIH policy. The voluntary policy from 2005 yielded a lot of interest, but a less than 5% rate of compliance - and that just isn't enough. Sometimes you have to require something to make it happen. I think the policy is good, logical and feasible for both the publishers and the researchers, and great for the public. With an approximately $30 billion annual budget, the NIH has the ability to make people play their game - and I agree with the rules of this game; and so do 26 Nobel Laureates who signed a letter of support for the policy.
ALA has saved me the job of explaining the details with a summary, FAQs and an action alert all rolled into one. The House vote was supposed to be yesterday...let's wait and see. In the mean time, check out the ALA site and hopefully you will like what you see and add your name to the list of support (it takes a few seconds and you can do it right from that page).
*Those not in academia might say, "well, duh. of course" but that isn't an 'of course' statement - academic research publications have long been accessible only through subscriptions to the journals where the information is published. The articles are not the property of the researchers, the NIH, or the taxpayers - by publishing them, they become the property of the publication.