Front steps of National Library of Medicine, 2008, photo courtesy of NIH Image Bank
Front steps of National Library of Medicine, 2008, photo courtesy of NIH Image Bank

Imagine my surprise when I actually received a response to my letters in recognition of the NIH public access policy, a form letter undoubtedly, but nonetheless gratefully received. And as a side effect, it allows us to gauge the understanding of the issues in the pertinent offices.

The letter, which I’ve duplicated below in its entirety, addresses two of the issues that I raised in my letter, the expansion of the policy to other agencies and the desirability for a reduction in the embargo period.

With regard to expanding the NIH policy to other funding agencies, the response merely notes the America COMPETES Act‘s charge to establish a working group to study the matter — fine as far as it goes, but not an indication of support for expansion itself.

With regard to the embargo issue, the response seems a bit confused as to how things work in the real world. Let’s look at some sentences from the pertinent paragraph:

  • “As you may know, the 12-month delay period specified by law (Division G, Title II, Section 218 of P.L. 110-161) is an upper limit. Rights holders (sometimes the author, and sometimes they transfer some or all of these rights to publishers) are free to select a shorter delay period, and many do.” This is of course true. My hope, and that of many others, is to decrease this maximum.
  • “The length of the delay period is determined through negotiation between authors and publishers as part of the copyright transfer process.” Well, not so much. Authors don’t so much negotiate with publishers as just sign whatever publishers put in their path. When one actually attempts to engage in negotiation, sadly rare among academic authors, things often go smoothly, but sometimes take a turn for the odd, and authors in the thrall of publish or perish are short on negotiating leverage.
  • “These negotiations can be challenging for authors, and our guidance (http://publicaccess.nih.gov/FAQ.htm#778) encourages authors to consult with their institutions when they have questions about copyright transfer agreements.” I have a feeling that the word challenging is a euphemism for something else, but I’m not sure what. The cited FAQ doesn’t in fact provide guidance on negotiation, but just language to incorporate into a publisher agreement to make it consistent with the 12-month embargo. No advice on what to do if the publisher refuses, much less how to negotiate shorter embargoes. As for the excellent advice to “consult with their institutions”, in the case of Harvard, that kind of means to talk with my office, doesn’t it? Which, I suppose, is a vote of confidence.

So there is some room for improvement in understanding the dynamic at play in author-publisher relations, but overall, I’m gratified that NIH folks are on top of this issue and making a good faith effort to bring the fruits of research to the scholarly community and the public at large, and reiterate my strong support of NIH’s policy.

Here’s the full text of the letter:

DEPARTMENT OF HEALTH & HUMAN SERVICES
Public Health Service
National Institutes of Health
Bethesda, Maryland 20892

May 27 2011

Stuart M. Shieber, Ph.D.
Welch Professor of Computer Science, and
Director, Office for Scholarly Communication
1341 Massachusetts Avenue
Cambridge, Massachusetts 02138

Dear Dr. Shieber:

Thank you for your letters to Secretary Sebelius and Dr. Collins regarding the NIH Public Access Policy. I am the program manager for the Policy, and have been asked to respond to you directly.

We view the policy as an important tool for ensuring that as many Americans as possible benefit from the public’s investment in research through NIH.

I appreciate your suggestions about reducing the delay period between publication and availability of a paper on PubMed Central. As you may know, the 12-month delay period specified by law (Division G, Title II, Section 218 of P.L. 110-161) is an upper limit. Rights holders (sometimes the author, and sometimes they transfer some or all of these rights to publishers) are free to select a shorter delay period, and many do. The length of the delay period is determined through negotiation between authors and publishers as part of the copyright transfer process. These negotiations can be challenging for authors, and our guidance (http://publicaccess.nih.gov/FAQ.htm#778) encourages authors to consult with their institutions when they have questions about copyright transfer agreements.

I also appreciate your suggestion to expand this Policy to other Federal science funders, and the confidence it implies in our approach. The National Science and Technology Council (NSTC) has been charged by the America COMPETES Reauthorization Act of 2010 (P.L. 111-358) to establish a working group to explore the dissemination and stewardship of peer reviewed papers arising from Federal research funding. I am copying Dr. Celeste Rohlfing at the Office of Science and Technology Policy on this correspondence, as she is coordinating the NSTC efforts on Public Access.

Sincerely,

Neil M. Thakur, Ph.D.
Special Assistant to the NIH Deputy Director for Extramural Research

cc: Ms. Celeste M. Rohlfing
Assistant Director for Physical Sciences
Office of Science and Technology Policy
Executive Office of the President
725 17th Street, Room 5228
Washington, DC 20502

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