STM publishers and academic librarians are locking horns once again after a contentious rule mandating free public online access to research funded through the National Institutes of Health was enacted as part of the Consolidated Appropriations Act of 2007. The controversy dates to 2005, when the provision was first adopted as voluntary policy by NIH. But the new rule—now a law—requires NIH-funded researchers to deposit an electronic copy of their peer-reviewed manuscripts with the NIH for free online distribution through its online archive, PubMedCentral, no later than 12 months after journal publication.

Librarians hailed the new law, according to Heather Joseph, executive director of the Scholarly Publishing and Academic Resources Coalition: “Congress has just unlocked the taxpayers’ $29-billion investment in the NIH.” But the Association of American Publishers called it “unprecedented and inconsistent with important U.S. laws.”

While the AAP was prepared to accept a voluntary version of the rule, the organization is incensed that it has been made mandatory. The AAP remains adamant that the law will undermine STM publishers—as well as scientific associations that raise funds through publishing—by providing free access to research that is being published commercially. Allan Adler, AAP’s v-p for legal and government affairs, is also raising the objection that the rule undermines copyright. He also noted that the rule was enacted “as a rider” on the appropriations bill “without hearings or studies to assess its merits.” And Adler compared the NIH rule unfavorably to a similar policy of the National Science Foundation, which requires that researchers provide only “a readily accessible summary” of NSF-sponsored projects, rather than a publishable manuscript.

In an interview, Joseph said the rule had been under discussion since it was implemented as voluntary policy in 2005, and said that the 12-month waiting period was added to protect publishers’ interests. She said under the voluntary rule “there was no negative impact on publishers,” but compliance was low, adding that “now compliance will go up—we hope.” Joseph also dismissed claims that “the rule was slipped in under cover of night. This was a continuing resolution that was added to this bill. This policy was crafted carefully over four years and is designed to balance the interests of all the stakeholders.”

The AAP continues to be critical of the new rule on economic grounds, noting that scientific research is an important product in the international marketplace and making research freely available undermines the global market for research. “This material is often used as many as 10 years after journal publication,” said Adler.

Adler complained that the new policy “threatens the intellectual freedom of authors” and said the mandatory rule “eliminates the concept of permission” allowing the NIH to take publisher property “without compensation.” Adler was not clear about what recourse was available to fight the new law. But he noted that some members of Congress “are concerned about this and there will be further examination of this rule.”