Academics concerned about life science site

September 3, 1999

A giant electronic publishing site for life sciences research in the United States could undermine the interests of authors, British academics fear, writes Kam Patel.

When mooted by the US National Institutes of Health, the scheme was heralded as a pioneering initiative with the potential to allow research to be distributed and accessed speedily at no cost to the user, overcoming the price barriers erected by commercial publishers. Critically, the scheme appeared to offer the prospect of authors being able to archive refereed and non-refereed material themselves.

But a statement this week from NIH director Harold Varmus has caused academics concern that the issue of self-archiving by authors has not been addressed.

Originally called E-Biomed, the scheme has now been renamed PubMed and expanded to cover agricultural and plant sciences as well as biomedicine.

Dr Varmus said peer-reviewed reports will be provided to PubMed from "participating publishers and societies that have mediated the review process".

He said the plan is to make reports available through PubMed by January 2000 and urged "publishers, societies, editorial boards and other organisations" interested in depositing material in PubMed to contact the NIH.

Fred Friend, of the Standing Conference of National and University Libraries, is worried by the absence of "academics" and non-participating publishers and societies in the scenario for submitting papers to PubMed.

"It does seem the NIH is allowing publishers and other organisations to reassert their control over the preprint process and this may not be in the long-term interests of academics," he said.

Mr Friend said the original NIH scheme proposed that peer-reviewed articles would be sent in by editorial boards. But the latest comments from Dr Varmus suggest this will now be left to publishers.

"The statement recognises that this could lead to a delay in submission to PubMed for commercial not academic reasons," said Mr Friend. "Similarly, the non-reviewed submissions are now to be made by organisations more than by individuals and this could lead to the dead hand of bureaucracy delaying publication. I hope I am wrong, because PubMed could bring major benefits if it works well."

Southampton University's Stevan Harnad, founder of an online self-archive for the cognitive sciences, said: "We need more clarification from NIH on whether authors will be able to self-archive. The answer might turn out to be that only publishers will be able to archive refereed papers in PubMed."

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