NIH to Increase Accessibility of Research New rules mandate that reports of research funded by the National Institutes of Health, the major medical research funding agency in the U.S., must be made freely available after a maximum of one year. A publication based on NIH-funded work is now required to be deposited in a public database.

NIH to Increase Accessibility of Research

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IRA FLATOW, host:

This is Talk of the Nation Science Friday, I'm Ira Flatow. Up next, a look at a new federal policy that could change the way scientists, at least those doing biomedical research, share their work. Starting this week, whenever a researcher funded by the National Institutes of Health submits a paper for publication, he or she must make sure that within a year, the paper goes into the NIH's online database, PubMed Central. Now, papers in PubMed Central are available free of charge to anyone who wants to read them and this open-access model is likely supported by academic scientists and opposed by many publishers who make money charging subscription fees for access to the journal these articles appear in. There are lots of journals out there.

Dr. Harold Varmus is a very familiar and respected name in science. He's been at the forefront of the open access movement. He helped start the Public Library of Science, which puts out several open access journals. He's here to tell us why this new policy is necessary and what else still needs to be done if biomedical science is to be true open access. And if you'd like to talk about it, our number is 1-800-989-8255. 1-800-989-TALK. Dr. Varmus is the 1989 Nobel laureate in physiology or medicine, and as I say, he's a co-founder and a chairman of the board of the Public Library of Science and president of Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center in New York. Welcome back to Science Friday, Dr. Varmus.

Dr. HAROLD VARMUS (Co-founder and Chairman, Public Library of Science): Thank you, Ira, nice to hear your voice.

FLATOW: I just described a policy that went into effect. Did I get it right?

Dr. VARMUS: Yeah, this Monday, yes. I would only make one caveat.

FLATOW: Yes.

Dr. VARMUS: It's a great moment for biomedical science or the public's ability to get access to science. Indeed, people who are listening to this show now who have an interest in science and have been in the past limited in their ability to get access to what scientists are doing with their taxpayers' dollars, now will have much greater access. But it's not true open access in the sense that there's a delay between the time that a paper is sent to the NIH for posting in the library that we call PubMed Central and the time that it will become available. A delay that could be as long as a year. And those of us who publish true open access journals, as we do with the Public Library of Science, make those papers available at the time of publication to everybody. But we can get back to that distinction.

FLATOW: No, let's talk about it.

Dr. VARMUS: The main thing is there are now going to be roughly 80,000 papers a year that describe works supported by the 29 billion dollars that the NIH spends on research that will now be available within a year for everyone to look at.

FLATOW: So you must have had opposition. There must have been opposition from the standard journals.

Dr. VARMUS: Oh yeah, indeed. Of course the library, what we call PubMed Central, basically a digital public library has been open since the end of 1999 when I was at NIH a long time ago. And we launched that as a kind of extension to something called PubMed. Now, almost anyone who has any contacts with medical science, whether it's a disease advocacy person or a healthcare worker or someone just interested in science, who's been going to PubMed and seeing what the NIH has been providing for about 15 years, namely the authors, the titles, often the abstracts of almost any paper published in any of the five to 6,000 legitimate journals that are out there. But what you can't see when you go to PubMed, at least you couldn't until this library was created, was the rest of the text. The data and the important stuff that you want to read.

But we opened the library in the end of 1999 in the hopes that the journals would be willing to provide their primary research reports to the public. Say six months or even a year after publication. At that point, people who subscribe, you know, if they have to wait six months to see it, they are not going to lose their subscriptions, because subscriptions are mainly held by university libraries and by individual scientists who want to see the material immediately, as soon as it's published. So, a delay of six months was put in to allay the concerns of journals that were concerned about losing their subscribers, which is a legitimate concern.

After all, they cost money to publish papers, to have them reviewed, to have them copy edited, to use, to put together a publication process. And - but we were surprised to find very few journals were initially willing to provide their six-month-old or one-year-old papers for the public to read. So a number of us who were enthusiastic about the library then founded a true open access publishing house called Public Library of Science, where we show the public that it actually is possible to make literature available immediately. Indeed, any of your listeners can go right now to plos.org and see all of the papers ever published by the Public Library of Science journals of which there are several.

Now, we have to pay our copy editors and our professional editors and our software engineers just like anybody else and we do that by asking that authors use their grant money, which is a very small fraction, roughly one percent of their total research money, to pay for the cost of a publication. And that allows papers to be published immediately. But with the growth of the open access movement and the recognition of how important it is for scientists and members of the general public, reporters like yourself and your listeners and healthcare workers and advocacy people and folks who do science in developing countries, people who are doing science at small institutions who can't afford to subscribe to all these journals like getting the papers even if they get them several months later.

And Congress has been responsive to this and has asked NIH to develop a policy that would make sure that the work that the NIH and the public pay for actually appears in the public domain and that's what's happening now. Now it's a requirement, as of Monday, that all investigators who have published - have a paper accepted that describes work that was funded by NIH dollars, will be obliged to provide those manuscripts to PubMed Central to be released within a year..

FLATOW: 1-800-989-8255. I'm talking with Harold Varmus. Let's got to Michael in Buffalo. Hi, Michael.

MICHAEL (Caller): Hi. Thanks for taking my call. I have a question. I work in a large research university in Buffalo, New York, and I wonder what happens to the process of peer review when we go to this kind of public access. I mean, the journals and the way we work.

Dr. VARMUS: That's an important question. I'm glad you asked it.

MICHAEL: You understand the question, yes.

Dr. VARMUS: Of course, we all believe peer review is an extremely important process, a part of the process of publication. In the case of the new NIH policy that requires that all papers published in any kind of journal, whether it's a traditional subscription based for-profit journal or whether it's in a new open access journal, be available to the public within a year. The true open access journals also practice peer review. Indeed, some of the journals that we publish at Public Library of Science have extraordinarily high rejection rates and some have much lower rejection rates and they have reputations that are in some sense dependant upon our demands for extremely high quality. So we have a quality machine.

The issue here with respect to true open access, making papers available to everybody at the time of publication, is a difference that requires a change in the business model. All publishers need revenue. They have to pay the people who put the journals together, whether they're online journals or whether they are both online and on paper. And the true open access journals that can afford to provide their content immediately get that money by asking authors to provide a modest fee that is paid by their funding agency at the time of publication. Other journals obtain their money through subscriptions that are mostly paid for by working scientists and by institutions.

FLATOW: Let's go to Dan in San Jose. Hi, Dan.

DAN (Caller): Hi, how's it going? I read about a great article. I'm glad you're doing this.

FLATOW: Thank you

Dr. VARMUS: Thank you.

DAN: My question is regarding all that archival stuff that we still won't be able to reach. Is there any possible...

Dr. VARMUS: That's a great question.

DAN: Exploration into, maybe down the road, compelling that the publication be done in open access journals if you receive NIH funding so that the journals themselves have the motivation to go back and open their archives to us.

DR. VARMUS: I love this question. Indeed, what's happening on all university campuses, and indeed all libraries, is that old material is going off to warehouses far from the site of the action and if you want to see a paper that I wrote in the 1970s, which to me doesn't seem so long ago, it's very hard to get. And most of those papers have not been digitized so that they are available, but it's not hard to do that. And in fact, some journals have done it and that's kind of a wonderful treat in PubMed Central. If you go and look for an article published by the American Society of Microbiology 20 or 30 years ago, it's there and it pops right up. And we could do that, probably not with all journals, it is somewhat expensive. But this can be done, and a relatively modest cost when you consider that literally hundreds of billions of dollars of research, our scientific legacy, is now very difficult to get access to.

FLATOW: Well, our listeners are on a roll, so let's stay with them. Heather in Washington, D.C. Hi, Heather welcome to Science Friday.

HEATHER (Caller): Hi, Ira, thank you very much. I'm just calling to ask, it sounds like from what Dr. Varmus is saying that this research can be available even faster than a year, and I work with an advocacy group in Washington that's very interested in speeding up this process. So I'm wondering if you have any suggestions for what members of the public can do to make sure that this research can be available to the public even sooner than one year?

Dr. VARMUS: Great. Well, that's a good question. Indeed, most of us believe that the journals that depend on subscriptions would not be hurt by a reduction in the interval to less than six months, even as short as two to three months. There's doubt that says that people look at the journals they subscribe to for a couple of months and after that they just seek the articles by searching in the Internet. So, I think a reduction could safely be made and I think the way to do that is to have people who really have a need for access, healthcare workers and disease advocacy groups and teachers of science in the schools, go to their members of Congress and say, we'd like to see this interval shortened.

Ultimately, you can't shorten it to zero without changing the business model because journals do need to have some revenue. Most journals, people are often surprised to learn, do extremely well in the current system. The average profit margin is as much as 30 to 40 percent. So there's no doubt that we can make the whole process somewhat less expensive but we still have to cover costs, so we can't make that - we can't reduce the interval to zero unless we shift to a true open access business model in which authors are paying.

I should say in response to the question that the NIH is not the only funding agency that has instituted this kind of policy. You can imagine that if you were a funder of science anywhere in the world, you would want the results that you paid for to be out there for everyone to, not just to see, but to work with. Indeed, the way in which one works with the information is extraordinarily important in this day of age in which we use the computer to mine, research data for new ways to think about things. And the Howard Hughes Medical Institute, the Welcome Trust of England, the Research Councils of U.K., the European Research Council of all endurance policies which in general mandate availability of the work they've paid for within six months rather than a year of publication.

FLATOW: Let's go to Sandra in Cheyenne, Wyoming. Hi, Sandra.

SANDRA (Caller): Hi.

FLATOW: Hi there, go ahead.

SANDRA: I'm a patient. I've got endorphin disease and for years I've been trying to find information and I always run into articles that I have to pay for. And I actually subscribe to certain things to get to those articles. But I wonder if doctors could provide a password to patients with rare diseases and maybe we could access articles that are pertinent to our disease early on and you know, I don't know.

FLATOW: Interesting idea.

Dr. VARMUS: OK, interesting idea. At the Public Library of Science, for example, we are trying to create sites within plos.org that will be places where patients with specific diseases can go and get information. There are already some sites out there. Hi-Q(ph) and a site run by the Alzheimer's association called Alzforum. These are places where patients can go and see information. But you're right, until the information is let go by the copyright holder, a publisher with a subscription base, in general it's very difficult to get those papers. Sometimes there's a special exemption made but the thing you need to push for here, I think it's going to be hard to credential people to get access to certain papers at early times. But I think what I would like disease advocacy groups to do is to recognize the power of the Internet to bring all of the information that you have paid for as taxpayers into the public domain earlier. And that means moving the delay to access to a shorter period and advocating for true open access publications like Public Library of Science.

FLATOW: We're talking with Dr. Harold Varmus this hour. Talk of the Nation Science Friday from NPR News. I have time for one more, one more quick call. Let's see if Dan in Silver Spring, Maryland. Hi, Dan.

DAN (Caller): Hi, I have a quick question about publishing some of the negative results. You know, NIH is funding a study. Wouldn't it make it more efficient to require some of these researchers to publish some of the results that didn't work, maybe cut some of the research process down for all the other researchers out there?

Dr. VARMUS: Right, that's a very important point. One of the things that we have done at Public Library of Science and other publishers, whether subscription-based or not, have thought about this, and that is to provide an opportunity for commentary on published papers, so that people can add informal reports that are online and make note of either altered versions of the same experiment, or negative results. The negative results issue is particularly important in the public health domain, with respect to clinical trial. Most clinical trials that are reported tend to report positive findings, and that's because they have a direct impact on health care. But it's important to know what didn't work, as well.

FLATOW: Yeah.

Dr. VARMUS: We started a journal at Public Library of Science for - called Clinical Trials, and we tried to encourage both pharmaceutical companies and academics to send in their negative findings. We didn't get a huge number of papers, frankly, and I think there is congressional interest in this topic and I think there simply has to be more public debate.

So I appreciate the question to accentuate the importance of finding some way to tabulate and make publicly available results from expensive trials that told us something, but not something that leads to a change in health care.

FLATOW: And in this age of the Internet, where we have instant blogs, and you know, people comment about everything they see on the web, you know there are places for people to make a comment. Could this not be also a trend in the research field, once something is published you can get commentary immediately? Feedback on it.

Dr. VARMUS: Absolutely. So if you go to plos.org, Ira, and you look at papers that we've published in a journal called PloS One, you will see an opportunity for you to make comments about papers and for the authors to respond to you. This requires a cultural change among scientists. They're not usually used to doing this in public. They may ask a question at a meeting, but they're not used to making a written comment that goes on the Web and is in some sense cataloged.

But we're trying to encourage people to use the Web and Web-based publishing especially in the open access mode to nurture this conversation among scientists and other interested members of the public. It provides a kind of post-publication review. It allows the building of communities of like-minded scientists who are interested in the same problem. And I think there's tremendous opportunity here that we - because we're a somewhat tradition-bound group of people, we haven't really milked fully the potential of the Internet to not just display our results but to make use of them and engage in conversations about them.

FLATOW: I'm going to try to make good use of your good will, Dr. Varmus. Can you stay with us for a few more minutes, right through the break?

Dr. VARMUS: Of course, sure.

FLATOW: We're talking to Dr. Harold Varmus, who is a co-founder and chairman of the board of the Public Library of Science and also the president of Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center here in New York. 1-800-989-8255. Talking about a terrific issue that is the public access to research. Your opinions, stay with us, we'll be right back after this short break.

FLATOW: I'm Ira Flatow, this is Talk of the Nation Science Friday from NPR News.

You're listening to Talk of the Nation Science Friday. I'm Ira Flatow, we're talking with Dr. Harold Varmus about publicly unleashing those research papers earlier, right? Immediately online. Just a quick reminder that next Wednesday, Neal Conan and Talk of the Nation will be broadcasting live from the Newseum again. And they're going to be looking back at the glory days of CBS News, the Tiffany Network, with guests Bob Schieffer and Roger Mudd. And if you'd like to be in the audience and you're in the Washington area on Wednesday and you want to join the live audience, send an email to talk@npr.org. That's talk@npr.org. With tickets, put tickets in the subject line if you'd like to come in and sit in the audience.

Dr. Varmus, where do you see - do you think that we're just going to - it's a matter of time until we're going to collapse until that one year is up, maybe six months, three months, and everything will be immediate?

Dr. VARMUS: I think quite a number of papers that get submitted to PubMed Central will be posted much earlier than a year. That will require a negotiation between authors and journals. And some journals, of course, many are already compliant with the request that their articles go directly to PubMed Central.

FLATOW: Yeah.

Dr. VARMUS: And so, there are many journals that are already posting their articles within six months and I think there will be many more. Because, you know, it's in the interest of authors to be sure that their material is available for other scientists to see as easily as possible. After all, scientists are funny kinds of authors. We want to be read, we're not getting paid, we want to be famous.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Dr. VARMUS: We give our articles to journals for free, we work for those journals as reviewers and as editors, we turn over the copyright. This is true of the subscription-based journals. In the case of the open access journals, you're allowed to retain your copyright. But nevertheless, no one gets paid, and we just want to be read.

FLATOW: Yeah.

Dr. VARMUS: So it's not just the agencies that want the work out there, the scientists want it, too. And the scientists, I think, will learn, especially as PubMed Central becomes a bigger and bigger library, just how useful it is to go there and they'll want their material to be up as soon as possible.

FLATOW: Yeah. You know who I think it's going to help a lot? It's going to help libraries. You know, they can't afford to pay for all these journals, and people will come in and say, where can I learn about this, and now they can just open their Web browser and send them to this spot.

Dr. VARMUS: Exactly. I'm glad you brought up the library issue, because one of the motivations for doing this is the increasing cost of subscription-based journals in biomedical sciences. The reason that the profit margins are so large is because some of these journals get sold for as much as several thousand dollars a year to libraries that serve significant numbers of scientists. And one way to get around that, of course, is to make the stuff all available in a much simpler way by having the costs covered by the scientists who submit an article.

FLATOW: Right. Let me ask you a related question, then. It came from the Internet in Second Life from Snilvoom(ph) who asked a very interesting question. If you're going to have more lay people coming to these articles, can you write more lay-language versions of the papers?

Dr. VARMUS: Yeah. That's a good question. At the Public Library of Science we have done that for many of our articles. I'm not sure it's a version that everyone in the world can read...

FLATOW: Yeah.

Dr. VARMUS: But certainly, anyone with a reasonable science background can read a simplified version. And the only caveat I would issue here is that it's expensive to do that. Most scientists are not very good at it and you can hire people who are science writers for the public, who can translate even complex information into accessible information. But it does cost additional money. And that's got to be paid for somehow.

FLATOW: Put it in the grant proposal. It's part of the grant proposal.

Dr. VARMUS: Well, that's not impossible, and many journals will ask that at least the summary of the work in accessible language be provided.

FLATOW: Yeah.

Dr. VARMUS: I think that's a very, very useful thing to do.

FLATOW: Yeah.

Dr. VARMUS: You know, frankly, I can't read everything, at least not with sophistication that's written even in my own field, let alone physics and chemistry. So there is a problem in translating science into language that everybody can read. It's a problem shared even by scientists.

FLATOW: Well, you're very good at it, Dr. Varmus. I want to thank you for taking the time to do it again for us.

Dr. VARMUS: Well, I appreciate you, Ira, for taking the chance to let this message get out to the public.

FLATOW: Thank you very much. Dr. Harold Varmus is co-founder and chairman of the board of the Public Library of Science and president of Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center here in New York.

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