Allan Adler is vice president of legal and government affairs for the Association of American Publishers, a trade organization that lobbied in support of the Research Works Act. Sitting in a conference room at the organization's headquarters near Washington, D.C.'s Chinatown, he said that he recognizes the growing financial stress that has been placed on university libraries over the last decade, though he wouldn't speak about the pricing factors pertaining to the organization's members ("We sort of regard that issue as really a vendor/customer issue," he said). But he did comment on the publishers' stance on the NIH policy, framing it as a debate over how best to keep the public informed on how their tax dollars are being spent on public research.
"One of the concerns of journal publishers has always been: Why does the NIH insist that the only way they can inform the public about the kind of research that the NIH funds and supports is by utilizing the manuscript of the researcher who has written that manuscript specifically to be published in a peer reviewed journal where the audience of that manuscript will be other researchers in the field, not the public?" he said. In response to the NIH policy, publishers have asserted that because of the layers of editorial review prior to a manuscript's publication, the publisher owns the copyright of the manuscript, and by forcing the author to deposit it in the PubMed repository the agency is violating that copyright.
Adler's argument boils down to whether or not the average member of the public could even understand the complexity of a peer-reviewed article, and he argued that a much better method of keeping the public informed would be for the communications arm of the NIH to summarize research findings in ways understandable to the layman. "So for an agency like the NIH," he explained, "the idea that they don't have the communications capability to regularly and in a timely manner explain to the public through their various websites, through their various published materials, what kind of research they fund and what the significance of that research is, it really defies any credibility that they can't do that."
But proponents of the NIH policy would argue that it wasn't just put in place to inform the layman as to how tax dollars are spent, but also as a resource to researchers and academics so they can access the material for free. Many of PubMed's most frequent users are scientists; one biologist said they use the word as a verb (as in, "I'll go PubMed that article"). In other words, the policy wasn't just put in place for transparency of government spending, but specifically so that the main consumers of the manuscripts--academics--can access it without charge. Because recently-published work is crucial for scientists to carry out their own work, some of PubMed's loudest supporters are researchers.
Opponents say this puts publishers at a financial disadvantage. "The argument that the taxpayer pays for it, and therefore the taxpayer should have it for free, is weak in my view," said Martin Frank, the executive director of the American Physiological Society. " … You and everyone else can identify the fact that there's lots of stuff in our society that has been developed through taxpayer dollars that we still end up paying for."
Even though Frank opposes the NIH policy of forcing grant recipients to deposit their articles in PubMed within one year, his society's 14 journals make their articles available free of charge after the same time period. While it may seem that there's a discongruity in these two statements, Frank is of the belief that it's the one-size-fits-all approach of the NIH that makes it so harmful. The American Physiological Society is able to release its articles for free after a year because its journals publish on a monthly basis and most of the value derived from those articles occurs during the first year. In the harder sciences, the adoption and dissemination of research happens at a much quicker pace, but in other sciences, he said, academics might not stumble upon a journal article until three years after it's published. So journals that specialize in these fields are put to a disadvantage by the NIH's 12-month policy. "Twelve months might not work for them because they have a very small subscription base, and if the subscription base becomes too small because people are willing to wait 12 months or six months, then you might have a problem sustaining it."