Free the Data

Jun 27, 2013, 1:14 PM

A woman uses a laptop computer for data.

A major theme at this year’s AcademyHealth Annual Research Meeting was the need to become more aggressive on translating and disseminating health research. Just last month, the Mailman School of Public Health at Columbia University announced that is was becoming the first school at the university and one of the first of U.S. schools of public health to adopt an open access resolution. The resolution calls for faculty and other researchers at the school to post their papers in openly available online repositories such as Columbia’s Academic Commons, where content is available free to the public, or in another open access repository, such as the National Institutes of Health’s PubMed Central.

“A wider dissemination of research and information has been a number one priority of our faculty, who are motivated by the belief that scientific knowledge belongs to everyone,” said Linda P. Fried, MD, MP, the dean at Mailman. “It is in the interest of all of us to take every measure possible to improve and simplify the process of gaining access to our research findings,” Fried said.

NewPublicHealth spoke with Bhaven N. Sampat, PhD, Assistant Professor of health policy and management at Mailman and a lead faculty member on the open access endeavor.

NewPublicHealth: Why haven’t many journals been open access before and what is making researchers, particularly in the field of public health, interested in more widely disseminating their research?

Dr. Sampat: Recently, it’s become much easier to disseminate articles electronically and I think that’s part of the impetus for the open access movement. When Dr. Harold Varmus was director of the National Institutes of Health (NIH), he was concerned that researchers in low-income communities in particular, including scientists in developing countries, weren’t able to afford access to publicly funded research and he set requirements to make NIH-funded articles open access within a year of publication.

At Columbia, the school of public health has a long standing history of ensuring the broad dissemination of scientific knowledge. The copyright experts at Columbia have a nonexclusive license to monitor Mailman school articles and to make sure that we are getting them out there as quickly as possible.

NPH: What do you think the impact will be? 

Dr. Sampat: There are two goals. One is to promote access to public health research to consumers of knowledge, particularly those in developing countries. This increases the chance of disseminating many findings much more quickly and maybe they will get access to knowledge that they wouldn’t have had access to before. And a second related goal is to promote access to producers of knowledge.  So scholars build on one another’s ideas. And if we get our ideas out there more quickly and at lower cost, then other people can build on them more rapidly and more extensively.

While we’re the first division at Columbia to have this policy, I think many journals are already on board here and many journals are already kind of moving in this direction, in large part because the NIH is trying to make this the norm. So I think most journals are willing to work with open access policies, but I don’t think they went there willingly — I think it really did take a big nudge or push from the NIH to get them moving in that direction.

A second goal is by raising awareness of open access at the Mailman school and by establishing a relationship between the Copyright Office and our school, is to help faculty members who want to get stuff out there sooner than standard publication agreements allow to basically team them up with people at the Copyright Advisory Office and help them in the negotiations with publishers.

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This commentary originally appeared on the RWJF New Public Health blog.