Two years after the White House issued its memo on Expanding Public Access to the Results of Federally Funded Research” we now have the second of the more than twenty policies to be announced (the first, from the Department of Energy [DOE] came out last August). The Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality (AHRQ) has posted their policy for public access to research papers and to research data, and their approach differs significantly from that of the DOE. Some first impressions below…
For access to research papers based on their funding, the AHRQ will follow the path already blazed by the NIH. Though the NIH has not officially announced a policy, representatives have stated that their PubMed Central (PMC) repository fulfills the White House’s requirements for research papers and will be their method of complying. Given that the NIH is required to use and maintain PMC by separate law, this is not surprising.
Many of the medical and health-related funding agencies are expected to take advantage of PMC for their own public access policies. The AHRQ will require funded authors to deposit their accepted article manuscripts to PMC, to be made publicly accessible after an embargo period of no more than 12 months after publication. It’s interesting to hear the AHRQ describe PMC, a public service of the National Library of Medicine, as a “private-public partnership”. It would be interesting to hear who they think the “private” partners are.
The upside of this approach is that PMC is a known quantity, one that has proven popular and effective in providing access to research papers. PMC is well-established, so many of the basic details of how it will function do not need to be worked out. The downside for the agencies is the cost. PMC is not inexpensive, and agencies will have to pay the NIH for services rendered. Since the federal government is not providing any additional funds for public access, this means that taxpayer money that could have been devoted to funding new research will instead be diverted elsewhere.
Compliance is another big question mark here. We know that the NIH is heavily reliant upon publishers depositing articles on behalf of authors (this report suggests that only 20% of PMC deposits come from authors). Publishers increasingly see PMC as a direct competitor in the marketplace. While I’ve only heard of one major medical publisher threatening to discontinue NIH author deposits, I’ve heard from many publishers that they will not automatically extend deposits for any new funding agency policies. This means authors will likely need to deposit their articles themselves, resulting in an increased burden on the researcher and their institution, and as has consistently been the case where manual deposit is required, reduced levels of compliance.
Like the DOE policy, the AHRQ makes no mention of reuse of articles, particularly for text- and data-mining purposes. The policy also offers a mechanism for shortening the embargo period, but no mention is made of any means of lengthening it, which seems incongruous with the White House policy.
Access to data is vastly more complicated than access to research papers, and accordingly, the AHRQ data policy is more complex. A great deal of the policy outlines how “data” is defined, and like the DOE and NSF policies, researchers will be required to submit a data management plan (DMP). The DMP will then be evaluated by the AHRQ, allowing some flexibility as requirements continue to evolve. The AHRQ expects data to be released no later than the date of “acceptance for publication of the main findings from the final dataset.”
Confidentiality is addressed, and the AHRQ requires “de-identification” to occur, or data to be withheld if it is not possible. The AHRQ will contract with an as of yet unnamed commercial repository, “to accept and manage data submitted by extramural, intramural, and contract researchers.” This is yet another diversion of funds away from new research and it will be interesting to see how well reliance on the commercial sector is accepted by those who favor public repositories.
As far as enforcement, the AHRQ staff, “will periodically manually check applications, proposals, or reports for compliance with the Public Access Policy.” Again this is effort and funding diverted away from research. Manual tracking seems anachronistic as we’re developing better and better automated methodologies for monitoring compliance, and this is an area where I’d like to see the AHRQ policy rapidly evolve. It’s also a bit disappointing to hear that the AHRQ is planning to develop a system of unique identifiers for datasets, which sounds like a reinvention of the wheel given existing standards like DOIs, ORCID and FundRef.
The start date for the AHRQ policy is unclear. At one point in the announcement they note, “Implementation will be prospective and will not apply to any publication or digital data set arising from an AHRQ-sponsored grant, cooperative agreement, contract, or intramural research project funded prior to publication of the final AHRQ Public Access Policy.” At another, they make the policy retrospective, and note that any research funded as of December 2014 will need any papers to be deposited in PMC, and that, “This policy will be effective for research funded in February 2015.” It is also stated that data need not be deposited until October 2015 when a commercial partner has been established. Clarification of these conflicting dates would be helpful.
It’s also interesting that the AHRQ will automatically defer to the policy of any other funding agency listed as involved in a particular project. This seems a smart move, given that there is likely substantial overlap between the NIH and AHRQ funding of projects, and will allow the AHRQ to avoid having to pay when another agency could foot the bill. It will be interesting to see how widespread these deferral policies are, and what happens when two agencies try to defer to one another.
*Post has been updated to correct an initial error regarding the start date of the policy.