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A substantial number of the United States' leading medical and scientific societies have declared their support for free access to research under certain circumstances — including access by scientists working in low-income countries.

In a statement released this week in Washington DC, 48 not-for-profit publishers, representing more than 600,000 scientists and clinicians and more than 380 journals, pledge their support for a number of forms of free access.

These include providing free online access to "selected important articles of interest", as well as ensuring that their journals are available online at no charge to scientists working in many low-income nations.

The publishers also commit themselves to making the full text of their journals "freely available to everyone worldwide either immediately or within months of publication". And they say their content will continue to be available for indexing by major search engines so that readers worldwide can easily locate information.

Recent months have seen an increasingly heated debate between 'open-access' advocates, who call for immediate and free online access to all scientific research findings, and advocates of the current journal publishing system, in which readers are charged to access scientific research findings.

The societies say that they provide "the needed middle ground" between commercial publishers and open-access publishers in this debate. However, they argue against the widespread adoption of open-access publishing, in which authors are charged to publish their research in order to allow free access to users.

"Publication fees should not be borne solely by researchers and their funding institutions, because the ability to publish in scientific journals should be available equally to all scientists worldwide, no matter what their economic circumstances," the statement says. But it also says that "a free society allows for the co-existence of many publishing models".

The statement has received a mix response from advocates of open access.

Writing on the American Scientist Open Access Forum, David Goodman of the Palmer School of Library and Information Science at Long Island University, United States, argued that providing free access only to so-called "important articles" would be confusing to both users and libraries.

The principles outlined in the statement are "very far from a solution and very far from free access in any normal sense", he said.

But Stevan Harnad of the University of Southampton, United Kingdom, welcomed the statement, saying that it suggested that the publishers "recognise and support the value of open access but they are not ready to take the risk of converting to open-access publishing at this time".

Link to full text of the Washington DC Principles for Free Access to Science