This week Congress unveiled HR 3547, the “Consolidated Appropriations Act of 2014.” This bill is essentially the plan to fund the US government for the current fiscal year, and brings with it good news for for the research community, as it does away with the automatic cuts made during sequestration. This will provide welcome relief, if not the increases that many had sought. HR 3547 also contains a surprise for scholarly publishers: new legislation mandating public access to research publications.
In section 527 on page 1,020 of the bill, legislation pertaining to federal agencies under the jurisdiction of the Labor, Health, and Human Services, Education And Related Agencies (LHHS) Committee now must meet the following requirements:
SEC. 527. Each Federal agency, or in the case of an agency with multiple bureaus, each bureau (or operating division) funded under this Act that has research and development expenditures in excess of $100,000,000 per year shall develop a Federal research public access policy that provides for—
1) the submission to the agency, agency bureau, or designated entity acting on behalf of the agency, a machine-readable version of the author’s final peer-reviewed manuscripts that have been accepted for publication in peer-reviewed journals describing research supported, in whole or in part, from funding by the Federal Government;
2) free online public access to such final peer-reviewed manuscripts or published versions not later than 12 months after the official date of publication; and
3) compliance with all relevant copyright laws.
The bill, I’m told, is likely to be passed as written. This section pertains only to LHHS Agencies, a list of which can be found here.
While it seems a bit odd for Congress to be moving ahead here, undercutting the White House’s own efforts in this area before they have a chance to take effect, with a few exceptions, the concept here is pretty similar to that put forth by the OSTP. It’s unclear that any plans from the agencies beyond what they’ve already developed for OSTP will be necessary.
While I am not a lawyer, and any interpretations should be taken with that caveat, a first glance at the language used raises a few questions. First, the legislation requires the deposit of the author’s final accepted manuscript. Many journals currently deposit the published, version of record in PubMed Central, but it’s unclear if this improved version of the article would be acceptable for agency requirements.
The language also seems geared to encouraging solutions like SHARE and CHORUS. Agencies can designate entities to act on their behalf as far as repositories go. The requirement for public access does not specify that it must be the archived version of the article that is made publicly available, opening up the possibility of journals providing this service.
The flat 12 month embargo will likely cause the most consternation, particularly because it does away with the OSTP’s carefully considered plans to allow for evidence-based rational policies to be implemented in this area. But given that the vast majority of LHHS funded research is in areas of health and medical sciences, the end result is likely much the same as it would have been under the OSTP plan. With the relatively short half life of medical research papers and the precedent set by the NIH, it’s unlikely that these articles were going to see an embargo longer than 12 months anyway.
Still, the embargo is problematic in that there remains no explanation or rationale given to support this particular length. It also sets further precedent, much like the NIH has done, that may influence embargoes in other areas. The rapid turnover in usage patterns and the high levels of funding for medical research create conditions different than those seen for other fields, so what’s appropriate for medicine may not be appropriate for history or math.
The legislation does create a new level of complexity, a new set of rules that are slightly different from other rules, and to which researchers must pay attention. As more and more funding agencies and institutions set idiosyncratic policies, researchers hoping to remain in compliance will be required to negotiate complex sets of rules from multiple sources, potentially requiring the deposit of multiple versions of a paper in multiple repositories, each with a different embargo period required.
Any additional burden placed on the researcher, time and effort spent away from doing actual research, is unwelcome. The added work, combined with the complexity of the rules, may result in poor levels of compliance.
Much of PubMed Central’s success can be attributed to publisher willingness to take on these responsibilities for the researcher. Author manuscripts appear to make up less than 20% of what’s posted in PubMed Central. Feedback from authors indicates that saving this time and effort is a valuable service that journals provide when they automatically deposit on an author’s behalf. If other agencies hope to emulate the NIH’s success, then automating the process through publisher partnerships is essential for driving compliance.
Which brings us back to CHORUS. It’s one thing to set up an automated deposit system for the largest funding agency in the country, it’s quite another to set up individual systems for every funding agency and institution on earth. CHORUS offers the efficiency of a single, unified system, but one with enough flexibility to meet different agency needs.
By integrating compliance as an automated part of the regular publication process, CHORUS saves everyone time, effort and money. Authors need do nothing more than indicate their funding agency when they submit a paper–nothing further is needed on their part to ensure compliance. Funding agencies save the costs of building and maintaining their own systems (or the costs of outsourcing to another agency) and see a higher level of compliance from grantees through automation. Publishers gain a new valuable service they can offer their customers and get to retain traffic to papers in their journals. The benefits offered to all seem increasingly obvious.
UPDATE: As of last night, the bill passed in the House, on to the Senate.
UPDATE: The Senate has passed it as well, now just awaiting the President’s signature and it’s a law.