There’s a movement underway in the federal government. And Veterans and other stakeholders of VA will be among those who benefit.
Back in 2013, the White House called for federal agencies that conduct research—including VA—to make the results of their research more open to the general public.
In response, we in VA—like our colleagues at several other agencies—began laying the groundwork for these changes. And now, a detailed plan is in place that will enable us to move forward.
The plan has been available online in the Federal Register for public review and comment (the deadline is Nov. 6, 2015). The formal title is “Policy and Implementation Plan for Public Access to Scientific Publications and Digital Data from Research Funded by the Department of Veterans Affairs.” Once VA reviews and analyzes the public input, we’ll be ready to finalize and implement the plan .
The plan applies only to studies funded directly by VA. If a researcher is salaried by VA, say, or has lab space at a VA medical center, but has a research grant from a nonprofit organization or private firm, the results of that study are not covered by the plan.
On the other hand, if the funding comes from the National Institutes of Health (NIH) or another federal agency, the results will be subject to those agencies’ public-access requirements, which will be similar to ours.
Earlier this year, in fact, VA joined NIH in enacting a new rule concerning journal manuscripts. This is one area of our public-access plan that has already been put into action.
Per this part of the plan, VA investigators must now submit their manuscripts to PubMed Central. This online repository is managed by the National Library of Medicine. The full articles become available to the public no later than a year after their initial publication in a medical or scientific journal.
If you’ve ever tried to track down a full journal article online— say, for a college course, or because you were looking into a certain health topic—you’ll understand why this matters. Only some journals are “open access,” meaning they make their contents freely available to the public. Most, however, charge a fee to read the full article, and only subscribers or those who pay a fixed fee per article (usually around $35) are allowed to read the full article. Only a brief abstract, or summary, of the work is available for free.
PubMed Central is a good solution to this problem. Visit the site, search for what you want, and you have unbridled access to any article in the database, in its entirety.
But that’s only one phase of our plan. We are also expanding access to the data supporting researchers’ conclusions. Regardless of funding sources, most medical or scientific journal articles do not typically include all the data sets used in the research. So the federal government is going a step beyond the norm here, in recognition of our obligations to taxpayers and the public at large.
This aspect involves a series of intricate technical and policy measures that we have carefully worked out over the past year or two, all outlined in the 29-page plan. Some of the steps involve collaboration with NIH and other agencies.
The overarching goal is to allow for wider access while keeping in place strong safeguards on Veterans’ privacy and data confidentiality. We will not be disclosing any private information as a result of the new expanded-access measures. Nor will we compromise scientific integrity and the rigor of our research.
About the Author: Dr. Timothy J. O’Leary is VA’s chief research and development officer. Dr. Tom Puglisi directs VA’s Office of Research Oversight.