The ongoing dispute between STM publishers and academic librarians over a law mandating free online public access to NIH-funded research continues after the chairman of the House Judiciary Committee introduced a bill that would reverse the law. Although the newly introduced bill, the Fair Copyright in Research Works Act, is unlikely to be acted upon in this congressional session, House Judiciary chair John Conyers presided over a hearing and testimony on the proposed legislation earlier this month.

Alan Adler, AAP's v-p for legal and government affairs, acknowledged that it was unlikely the bill would be acted on now, but he said it would be reintroduced in the next Congress and that if passed, “it would restore the status quo,” making manuscript submission to the NIH voluntary. “We've said for a while that NIH needs to consider the copyright implications of this law,” Adler said. “Conyers's bill marks the concerns over this law that were raised last year.”

The Association of American University Presses also issued a letter in support of the Conyers bill. In the letter, AAUP executive director Peter Givler criticized federal mandates that “weaken copyright protection” and undermine the “robust and flourishing system of university press publishing.”

The dispute is over a law enacted in 2007 that 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 and public access activists love the new law, emphasizing that the public should have free access to publicly funded research. On the other hand, STM publishers and scientific associations that rely on publishing for revenue are vehemently opposed to it, claiming the law offers free access to documents they are trying to sell commercially. The AAP has even made the claim that the law undermines intellectual freedom by effectively taking possession of copyrighted works without permission.

Heather Joseph, executive director of the Scholarly Publishing and Academic Resources Coalition, used different terms to describe the Conyers legislation: “It's designed to gut the NIH mandatory submission rule. Chances of passage in this Congress are slim, but it could be attached to other legislation next year.”

“No one likes a mandate,” Joseph continued, “but when there were no consequences, compliance with the NIH's voluntary rule was 10%; with the mandatory rule, compliance is now about 60%. That's a significant number of articles that the public would not have had access to.”

Joseph cited her own STM publishing experience as publishing director of the American Society for Cell Biology, noting that online access to content generally helps increase print revenues. “When I was a publishing director, we instituted an aggressive policy of voluntary submissions to NIH,” she said, claiming that compliance with the NIH public access law actually increased the association's ability to sell the material. “We submitted hundreds of manuscripts, with only a two-month embargo instead of the 12 months now mandated,” she explained. “We saw more downloads by the public [through PubMedCentral] as well as increased revenue. There's plenty of evidence that this rule does not hurt publisher revenues.”