As of January 2008, the HHMI requires original, peer-reviewed research publications from its researchers to be freely available and downloadable on-line within six months of publication.
The Academic Exchange: Describe the origins of HHMI's policy regarding public access publishing.
Avice Meehan: The HHMI is a medical research organization engaged in the direct conduct of biomedical research. The scientists are our employees but are based at labs across the country, which makes our approach different than the more traditional mechanism of awarding grants. We want to ensure that our scientists have the freedom and opportunity to submit their original research articles to the journals of their choice. By the same token, we want to ensure that the results of original research are made widely accessible within the scientific community and beyond as quickly as possible. To balance those two goals, we require that all original research papers produced by our scientists appear in a public repository--such as PubMed Central, the National Institutes of Health free digital archive of biomedical and life sciences journal articles--within six months of publication.
AE: What was the impetus for establishing the policy?
AM: Over the years, we've established a number of policies that ensure the broad dissemination of research results. We also have policies on sharing research material, reagents and other chemicals, computer programs, and even fruit flies generated in our lab. Our policy on public access for publications is an extension of that.
AE: Were there substantial hurdles to putting the policy in place?
AM: Not really. Tom Cech, who was the president of the institute at the time, could have just declared the policy. But he felt it was important to engage in a broad consultative process, in part because although we have many HHMI investigators who are enthusiastic proponents of the Open Access publishing model, and some who are leaders of the movement, we also have investigators who have a different perspective. They may be involved in the editorial boards of journals published by smaller societies or institutes. The type of changes that are rippling through the world of scientific publishing can be quite challenging to the viability of those smaller journals.
AE: How does the policy for public access accommodate the policies of the numerous journals to which HHMI scientists submit their work?
AM: The HHMI has a database that spells out the policies for each journal and also explains the responsibilities of our scientists. Some journals will upload a paper [to PubMed Central] automatically, but others require researchers to do that.
AE: How many papers have been affected by the policy?
AM: Our fairly rough data covering January 2008 through December 2009 shows that more than 1,600 articles had been indexed in PubMed Central, with full text available for more than half of them. When the policy went into effect (in January 2008), we had 300 to 330 scientists, so that's substantial activity.
AE: You took part in a panel discussion at the 2009 Berlin 7 Open Access Conference that convened in Paris a few months ago. What did you talk about?
AM: We were providing a broad look at the landscape of Open Access in the U.S. I focused on the perspective of a funder, because we're the single largest non-governmental funder of biomedical research in the U.S. We support almost four hundred researchers who are within the top ranks of science and a cadre of scientists who have played major leadership roles in the Open Access movement. The HHMI continues to have conversations with Open Access advocates and also publishers, and continues to assess the effectiveness of our policy.
AE: What do you anticipate for Open Access publishing in the near future?
AM: It's hard to tell. As an organization involved in medical research, we're very focused on our part of the publishing universe. But there are substantial efforts at the federal level to widen public-access policies beyond the biomedical sciences. The Obama administration is currently undertaking a major comment period to look at extending Open Access and public access for research done by the National Science Foundation and other funding agencies. The NIH has a policy in place saying that all NIH-funded research must be made accessible through PubMed Central within one year. No such policies exist for research funded by other agencies within the federal government.
Scholarly publishing is in a state of great flux. The humanities and other areas of scholarly thought that aren't as well funded face substantial challenges. There are still costs associated with journal publication, even if you go to an all-electronic format. You still need an editorial staff; you still have to orchestrate peer review as well as editing. There are big debates as to how this will be managed.