Digital data unleashed. As millions of students headed back to school last week, Canadian health researchers learned that change this year extends beyond the composition of their classes. The Canadian Institutes of Health Research, the federal government's health research granting agency, unveiled a new open access policy for the research that it funds. The new policy -- the first of its kind for Ottawa's three major research granting institutions that dole out hundreds of millions of dollars each year -- will revolutionize access to health research by mandating that thousands of articles published each year be made freely available online to a global audience. This marks an important step in the "open access" movement in Canada, which had been falling behind peer institutions in the United States, Europe, and Australia. It also places heightened pressure on the publishing industry to adapt their policies to permit greater access to publicly-funded research. Public paid twice For years, the research model in Canada has remained relatively static. University scientists and researchers, who rely heavily on federal financial support, typically publish in expensive, peer-reviewed publications, which are purchased by those same publicly-funded universities. Large publishers benefited from the system as they had access to a steady stream of content with minimal investment, yet the public was forced to pay twice for research that it was frequently unable to access. Patients with life threatening diseases seeking information on new treatments or parents searching for the latest developments on child immunizations were often denied access to the research they indirectly fund through their tax dollars. That will change starting in 2008. While CIHR already makes clinical trial data available, according to the new policy, grant recipients will be required to make every effort to ensure that all publications are freely accessible through the publisher's website or an online repository within six months of publication. The online repository approach -- often referred to as "self-archiving" -- relies on smart search engines to index millions of articles and make them easily accessible with the right search query. Open access backlash The policy will help ensure that five per cent of the world's health research scholarship -- tens of thousands of articles (CIHR funds approximately 5,000 researchers annually producing as many as 30,000 articles) -- is generally freely available. This benefits the researchers, whose work becomes more widely read and cross-referenced, as well as the general public. Notwithstanding this important development, the publishing industry remains skeptical about open access. Last month, the Association of American Publishers launched PRISM, a lobbying effort geared toward convincing U.S. lawmakers that open access threatens independent research and smacks of government censorship. While such outlandish claims are easily countered, the lobby has forced the scientific community to spend more of its time justifying policies to make their research available, rather than focusing on the research itself. Indeed, critics have noted the publisher pressure may have led to a last minute change in the CIHR policy. The policy is not iron-clad since publication in an online repository is conditional on the appropriate permission from the publisher. Accordingly, a researcher does not violate the grant requirements by not posting their work if a publisher refuses to grant them permission to do so. This leaves publishers with a measure of control, though a growing number of them now permit this form of archiving. Prentice's challenge While it is tempting to say that the policy does not go far enough in light of this loophole, the CIHR policy is likely to place renewed pressure on the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council (NSERC) and the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council (SSHRC), the federal government's two other major granting councils, to follow suit. To date, the SSHRC has only launched a small open access pilot project after opposition from publishers such as the University of Toronto Press short-circuited bolder plans. NSERC has proven even more apathetic, as internal documents reveal that council personnel admit that open access is not a priority. That may change as new Industry Minister Jim Prentice focuses on Canadian economic competitiveness and fiscal responsibility. With the health field now leading the way, Canadians may at long last gain open access to the world-class research they have funded, while the publishing industry adapts to the new realities of access to research. Related Tyee stories: Now You Can Read What Doctors See'Open Medicine' lets public view medical research. Med 2.0? How Good a Doctor Is the Net?I'm one of millions who try to self-diagnose using health info online. My prescription: Be careful! BC Health Advice: Censored and Skewed?Libs cancel a critic, open door to pharma lobbyists.