Electronic publication threatens journals

June 25, 1999

Kam Patel explores ambitious plans for a research journal on the internet

One of the most ambitious schemes yet dreamt up to place academics worldwide at the heart of electronic communication has just been proposed by the National Institutes of Health in the United States.

One of eight health agencies of the US Public Health Service, NIH conducts its own biomedical research and supports researchers in the US and abroad. With a budget of $16 billion (Pounds 10 billion) for this year, it has the clout and reputation not only to become the world's premier on-line repository for biomedical research, but also to encourage other disciplines to move further into the digital domain.

Electronic journals have been around for many years and new ones are being launched by academics and learned societies regularly. But the scale of digital publishing by scholars of their own papers in e-journals and as individual articles is dwarfed by the print and electronic initiatives of the commercial publishing industry.

Harold Varmus, director of the NIH, firmly believes that the full potential of electronic communication has yet to be realised. "The scientific community has made only sparing use so far of the internet as a means to publish scientific work and to distribute it widely and without significant barriers to access," he says.

One notable pioneering exception, and one which has partly inspired the NIH venture, is the electronic archive system at the Los Alamos National Laboratory for the high energy physics community. Highly regarded and long-established, the Los Alamos facility makes pre-prints freely available electronically to users.

The NIH proposal, now out for consultation, has been developed by Dr Varmus, David Lipman, director of the US National Centre for Biotechnology Information, and Pat Brown of Stanford University. They are convinced that electronic publishing can "accelerate the dissemination of information, enrich the reading experience, deepen discussions among scientists, reduce frustrations with traditional mechanisms for publication, and save substantial sums of public and private money."

At the same time, however, Dr Varmus acknowledges the strengths of the current system for publishing scientific work. A crucial element of the current system that needs to be preserved in the new medium is quality control through peer review and editing.

Dr Varmus is also conscious of the fact that there is an established "journal hierarchy" with some having particularly strong "brand images" that serve to attract the best research papers from around the world: the NIH venture will have to develop a similar status. Then there are the physical and aesthetic aspects of print publications to consider - attractively designed formats bound in a package that can be easily stored, retrieved and transported.

The NIH says it wants the creation of the electronic publishing site, called E-biomed, to be a collaborative effort by the institute and the biomedical community. But some have expressed concern that the institute would have too much control, undermining the views of scientists in other countries about how the site should be managed and run.

But Dr Varmus insists that "in no sense would the NIH operate as the owner or rule-maker for this enterprise". The plan, he says, aims to accelerate debate about electronic publication in the US and abroad and provide financial, technical and administrative assistance to initiate such a programme.

E-biomed would transmit and maintain reports in the many fields that constitute biomedical research including clinical research, cell and molecular biology, medically related behavioural research and bioengineering. "The essential feature of the plan is instantaneous, cost-free access by potential readers to E-biomed's entire content," says Dr Varmus.

There would also be a governing body with representatives from all the key players - readers and authors, editors, computer specialists and funding agencies. Copyright to papers posted to E-biomed would be retained by the authors on the basis that full versions would be freely available for transmission, downloading and publication. Portions of reports could only be reproduced with the permission of authors.

On the key issue of quality control, the NIH is proposing two routes to submitting scientific reports to the E-biomed repository. Many reports would be submitted, it is envisaged, to editorial boards. The mechanism used by them would essentially be the same as current practice, with peer review being necessary for publication. Authors would also have the option of submitting reports directly to E-biomed without the endorsement of editorial boards.

Before publication in the database, each report would need to be approved by two individuals approved by the board. It is intended that the regulations governing such approval are broad enough to include several thousand scientists, but tight enough to prevent publication of poor or outrageous material.

Increasingly sophisticated ways of presenting the information open up the possibility of multi-media formats that allow use of, for instance, photographs and video. There will also be reduced costs to users who are currently levied in a variety of ways.

The E-biomed scheme is potentially ground-breaking, but it is limited to one field, biomedicine. More revolutionary would be a system that can be applied across disciplines, and a proposal from academics at California Institute of Technology, Pasadena, aims to do just that. Called Scholar's Forum, the scheme is working to bring together a consortium of universities, professional societies and authors to develop a "unique approach that integrates in one conceptual model all the elements of scholarly communication, beginning at the author's keyboard and ending in the library's archives".

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