The director of the US National Institutes of Health (NIH) has hit back at critics of his proposal for a freely accessible literature archive.

In an interview with Nature, Elias Zerhouni accused scientific publishers of floating “doomsday scenarios” in which the archive causes widespread cancellations of journal subscriptions and drives smaller publications out of business. He stressed that submission of papers on NIH-funded research would be left to the discretion of authors. But publishers rejected his assurances, saying that researchers would feel pressured to submit their papers for fear of losing out on future NIH grants.

Zerhouni's comments came on 16 November, at the end of a 60-day public discussion period that generated more than 6,000 comments on the proposal (see Nature 431, 115; 200410.1038/431115a). The policy calls for all papers produced with NIH funding to be submitted electronically to the agency after completing peer review. Six months after publication, the papers would appear in PubMed Central, the NIH's online public archive.

Open doors: all NIH-funded work could be freely available. Credit: M. T. CAVANAUGH

Many scientific publishers oppose the proposal, saying that offering their articles for free could drive journals out of business. They add that inaccuracies will be preserved in PubMed, because the policy proposes that articles be posted before copyediting and correcting. But patient-activist groups and librarians have been vocally supportive. They argue that the archive would improve public education, communication between scientists and the translation of biomedical advances into healthcare.

Zerhouni last week dismissed some of the publishers' fears, accusing them of releasing “misinformation” about the impact on subscriptions. He added that researchers would be free to opt out of the archive. “I'm willing to take the risk of seeing the decision made not by government fiat but by the scientists themselves,” he said. “If they don't wish to publish on the NIH website, that's their decision and the decision of their publishers, not mine.”

Publishers say that the argument is disingenuous. They point out that the policy requires authors and not journals to submit papers. “Researchers would be concerned that if they did not comply with this plan, they might be looked upon with less favour for awards of future NIH grants,” says Allan Adler, a lobbyist with the Association of American Publishers.

The NIH is scheduled to submit a final version of the policy to Congress by 1 December, but Zerhouni says that the flood of comments makes it almost certain that this deadline will slip.