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An Open Letter to the U.S. Congress

An Open Letter to the U.S. Congress, Signed by 26 Nobel Prize Winners

As scientists and Nobel laureates, we are writing to express our strong support for the House and Senate Appropriations Committees’ recent directives to the NIH to enact a mandatory policy that allows public access to published reports of work supported by the agency. We believe that the time is now for Congress to enact this enlightened policy to ensure that the results of research conducted by NIH can be more readily accessed, shared and built upon – to maximize the return on our collective investment in science and to further the public good.

As we noted in a letter to Congress urging action on this policy nearly three years ago, we object to barriers that hinder, delay or block the spread of scientific knowledge supported by federal tax dollars – including our own works. Thanks to the internet, we can transform the speed and ease with which the results of research can be shared and built upon. However, to our great frustration, the results of NIH-supported medical research continue to be largely inaccessible to taxpayers who have already paid for it.

Despite best intentions, the voluntary policy enacted by NIH over two years ago has simply not improved public access significantly. As active scientists, it does not surprise us that a request – with neither incentives nor consequences attached – to submit our articles so that they are freely available simply does not make the lengthy “to-do” lists of our colleagues. We firmly agree with NIH Director Elias Zerhouni, who indicated in his testimony to the Senate LHHS Appropriations Subcommittee this year that only a mandatory policy will be an effective policy. Requiring compliance is not a punitive measure, but rather a simple step to ensure that everyone, including scientists themselves, will reap the benefits that public access can provide. We have seen this amply demonstrated in other innovative efforts within the NIH – most notably with the database that contains the outcome of the Human Genome Project.

The public at large also has a significant stake in seeing that this research is made more widely available. When a woman goes online to find what treatment options are available to battle breast cancer, she will find many opinions, but peer-reviewed research of the highest quality often remains behind a high-fee barrier. Families seeking clinical trial updates for a loved one with Huntington's disease search in vain because they do not have a journal subscription. Librarians, physicians, health care workers, students, journalists, and investigators at thousands of academic institutions and companies are currently hindered by unnecessary costs and delays in gaining access to publicly funded research results.

Over the past three years, public access to work produced in other countries has been greatly expanded. Both government and philanthropic funding agencies in several nations, including the United Kingdom, Germany, Canada, Brazil, France, and Australia have outpaced the U.S. in advancing policies for sharing the results of their funded research, with rules that are more stringent than those now employed by the NIH. In the United Kingdom alone, 5 of the 8 Research Councils and the leading foundations that support science have enacted mandatory public access policies; it is now estimated that 90% of the biomedical research funded in the U.K. is covered by a mandatory enhanced- or open-access policy. Enhanced public access, will not, of course, mean the end of medical and scientific journals at all. They will continue to exercise peer-review over submitted papers as the basis for deciding which papers to accept for publication, just as they do now. The experience of dozens of publishers has shown that even with embargo periods of 6 months (or shorter), journals continue to thrive. In addition, since this policy will apply only to NIH-funded research; journals will contain significant numbers of articles not covered by this requirement as well as other articles and commentary invaluable to the science community. Journals will continue to be the hallmark of achievement in scientific research, and we will depend on them.

The NIH, with Congress’ direction, has the means today to promote enhanced access to taxpayer-funded research through the National Library of Medicine. NIH grantees should be required to provide to the NLM an electronic copy of the final version of all manuscripts accepted for publication by legitimate medical and scientific journals, after peer review. As soon as possible after the time of publication, NIH should make these reports freely available to all through their digital archive, PubMed Central (PMC).

We strongly encourage you to realize this overdue reform by adopting language in the FY08 Appropriations measure that requires the NIH Public Access Policy to be made mandatory.

Signed by 26 Nobel Laureates:

  • Peter Agre, Chemistry, 2003
  • Sidney Altman, Chemistry, 1989
  • Paul Berg, Chemistry, 1980
  • Michael Bishop, Physiology or Medicine, 1989
  • Baruch Blumberg, Physiology or Medicine, 1976
  • Gunter Blobel, Physiology or Medicine, 1999
  • Paul Boyer, Chemistry, 1997
  • Sydney Brenner, Physiology or Medicine, 2002
  • Johann Deisenhofer, Chemistry, 1988
  • Edmond Fischer, Physiology or Medicine, 1992
  • Paul Greengard, Physiology or Medicine, 2000
  • Leland Hartwell, Physiology or Medicine, 2001
  • Robert Horvitz, Physiology or Medicine, 2002
  • Eric Kandel, Physiology or Medicine, 2000
  • Arthur Kornberg, Physiology or Medicine, 1959
  • Harold Kroto, Chemistry, 1996
  • Roderick MacKinnon, Chemistry, 2003
  • Kary Mullis, Chemistry, 1993
  • Ferid Murad, Physiology or Medicine, 1998
  • Joseph Murray, Physiology or Medicine, 1990
  • Marshall Nirenberg, Physiology or Medicine, 1968
  • Stanley Prusiner, Physiology or Medicine, 1997
  • Richard Roberts, Physiology or Medicine, 1993
  • Hamilton Smith, Physiology or Medicine, 1978
  • Harold Varmus, Physiology or Medicine, 1989
  • James Watson, Physiology or Medicine, 1962