Peter Suber at Earlham has published an FAQ concerning the NIH public-access policy. His FAQ may have been there for a while - the policy itself went into effect in 2006 - but it came to my attention due to an internal discussion we are having here. Here's the gist of the legislative intent behind the policy, which Peter has quoted from the House Rules Committee record:
The conferees are aware of the draft NIH policy on increasing public access to NIH-funded research. Under this policy, NIH would request investigators to voluntarily submit electronically the final, peer reviewed author's copy of their scientific manuscripts; six months after the publisher's date of publication, NIH would make this copy publicly available through PubMed Central. The policy is intended to help ensure the permanent preservation of NIH-funded research and make it more readily accessible to scientists, physicians, and the public. The conferees note the comment period for the draft policy ended November 16th; NIH is directed to give full and fair consideration to all comments before publishing its final policy. The conferees request NIH to provide the estimated costs of implementing this policy each year in its annual Justification of Estimates to the House and Senate Appropriations Committees. In addition, the conferees direct NIH to continue to work with the publishers of scientific journals to maintain the integrity of the peer review system.
In brief, the intent is to give the general public - taxpayers - access to the results of the research they paid for.
There are caveats galore.
First, what was originally a requirement was watered down to a request. Second, if you don't publish your results in a peer-reviewed journal, you can ignore the request. Third, you can embargo the release of the article for up to 12 months after publication. Fourth, you can publish the version accepted by peer reviewers rather than the final version after copy edits. Fifth, open access was reduced to no-fee access, leaving the material subject to "fair use" restrictions under US copyright law.
Why not just let the "free market" work? Peter addresses the question as follows:
If the objection is that government should take no actions that reduce profits for private-sector businesses, then it is easily answered. The purpose of this policy is to accelerate research, the pace of discovery, and the translation of bench science into concrete benefits for the public. It is to share important research about disease and health with researchers who can build on it, physicians who can apply it, and taxpayers who have paid for it. It is to make NIH-funded research as useful as it can possibly be and to take full advantage of the rapid growth in NIH research spending. It is to take advantage of the internet to increase the return on the taxpayer investment in research. It's about advancing the public interest, not a private interest.
the public interest have a greater claim than Adam Smith's invisible
hand of the market? I'd maintain that it does, at least with respect to
making the fruits of publicly funded knowledge creation available to
the public in a timely manner. Actually that's still the invisible hand
at work, now that I think about it. If the knowledge flow is too
restricted, the public is going to start to wonder at some point why we
are paying for the research in the first place.
The real money is to be made downstream in most cases, in the form of drugs and devices in many cases. In others, the money is to be made by marketing a therapeutic intervention through popular books and clinics, the approach that made Dr. Spock and Dr. Atkins into household names.