Revised guidelines by an international committee could threaten efforts to persuade the WHO to freely disseminate findings from government-funded health research projects.
Supporters of an 'open access' policy had a clause inserted to that effect in an earlier version of the committee's guidelines.
But the most recent draft, which will be submitted to the World Health Assembly next year, states that open access should merely be "strongly encouraged".
The WHO Intergovernmental Working Group on Public Health, Innovation and Intellectual Property, comprising member states of the WHO, suspended discussions at their second session last week (10 November) in Geneva, Switzerland.
The group aims to prepare a global strategy on essential health-research issues that disproportionately affect developing countries.
There was no mention of open access in their original draft, released in July. Statements on open access as a requirement were inserted later, in the 'Rio text' — a sub-regional consensus document from 14 Latin American countries — at a meeting on 3–5 September.
Open access publishing makes electronic forms of scientific papers freely available on the web. Its advocates say this is the only way to get information to all who need it.
But critics argue that publishers will lose vital revenue and that compensation measures, such as payment frompublishing authors for the option, could hinder release of information by authors in developing countries.
Supporters of open access claim the wording change dashes an opportunity for the WHO to promote it in the developing world.
"Strong encouragement does not work: we already know this from the failure of other non-mandatory policies, whether by researchers' funders or researchers' employing institutions," Stephen Harnad, professor of Cognitive Science, Electronics and Computer Science at the UK-based University of Southampton, told SciDev.Net.
"The only thing that works is a mandate. The WHO could have helped accelerate open access momentum, but if it does not upgrade again to a mandate recommendation, it will either not help, or it may even reduce momentum," he adds.
"The WHO have immense opportunities to benefit health in the poorest nations and if they put their considerable influence and resources into open access, things would progress far faster," says Barbara Kirsop of the Electronic Publishing Trust for Development.
"It is only too clear that if there is just a 'request' to deposit research publications in open access institutional repositories, it won't work as scientists are just interested in the next bit of research and forget all about ways to increase the impact of their work," she adds.
"Fortunately, because establishing open access institutional repositories, for example, is so low-cost, things are moving ahead anyway, particularly in Latin America."