Thomas E. DeCoursey, Ph.D., Rush Presbyterian St. Luke's Medical Center, May 25, 1999
I believe that adopting the E-biomed proposal would be a huge waste of money, and would serve mainly to lower the quality of scientific research. It would cheapen the value of scientific publication, diminish accountability of both scientists and reviewers, and thus encourage fraud. This proposal is so horrible that I feel sure the U.S. Government will move forward with it.
Putative Inherent and prospective benefits of E-biomed
1) Open access to scientific reports and assembly of personalized journals.
This is undoubtedly the main, and possibly the ONLY real advantage of the E-biomed proposal. Of course, many journals already provide on-line access, at a price (a few are free). Point 4 claims that costs will be reduced, but there will still be costs, that presumably will be paid by users of the E-journal. Thus there will not be universal access, only access for those who can afford the pay the price. This means that instead of browsing, the readers will have to try to guess which papers are worth the price of downloading, and forget about those that may not sound worth it.
2) Improved format for publication of modern biology.
Some fancy images and 3D protein movement studies would benefit greatly from the video format. However, these represent a tiny fraction of the scientific literature. For the most part, reading anything on a monitor is a more superficial process than reading a print version. This is the worst aspect of the proposal. A reader cannot leaf back and forth to compare different figures on-line. A reader cannot make notes, or do calculations in the margins, or measure data on graphs, or otherwise interact intimately with the paper. The video format encourages and enforces superficiality. The only way to overcome this is to print out the paper. Thus we are back to the printed version.
3) More rapid dissemination of scientific information.
This may be true to a small extent, but do we really need this degree of speed? What we need more desperately is quality control. The reason high-quality journals are respected is that they employ a careful and peer review process. The Editorial Board is listed in each journal to demonstrate the quality of scientists who take responsibility for the quality control of the journal. It is quite telling that the description of the review process seems very superficial and perfunctory. The anonymity of the E-biomed format, and the separation of the Editorial Board from the process (who is going to download the Editorial Board list?), and the mindless pursuit of rapid publication, will encourage perfunctory reviews.
4) Reduced costs.
But at what cost? There will be real costs of the E-biomed format. Ordinary journals that provide on-line access, do so at a price, to defray the costs of the process. The cost of publishing can be reduced somewhat by eliminating the printed version, but there will still be costs.
Thomas E. DeCoursey, Ph.D.
Professor, Department of Molecular Biophysics and Physiology
Rush Presbyterian St. Luke's Medical Center
Walter Ehrlich, M.D., Ph.D., Johns Hopkins School of Public Health, May 25, 1999
Dear Dr Varmus,
I am very excited about your proposal of E-Biomed. It is excellent because it will
speed up scientific information and discussion and will lead to a democratization of
science. I am, therefore, disappointed by the comments of the council of the APS
[ my society ]. I take especially exception to the argument that E-Biomed general
repository will publish papers of "widely divergent quality". Did now existing journals, even the very prestigious ones with highly esteemed editorial boards, not
also print papers of "widely divergent quality" ? The essence of science , the
human character and other factors cause a large scale of quality differences
between the studies published even in the same issue of a journal. Widely
divergent quality in refereed journals or in Biomed repository publications does
not permit the generalization they "propagate bad science."
The Biomed repository publications will have a unique specific importance
for science. Everybody knows that in the past many valuable, revolutionary
findings had to be submitted to a great number of journals before they were
finally accepted for publication. Nobody knows how often authors of excellent
papers had to give up. Their original findings were not published at all,at least
not at this time and/or not under their name. If two members of a given society with a dozen publications of their own, recommend a study for publishing in the general
repository and acknowledge this next to the publication, they have to be convinced
of its merits. The unique advantage of the studies in the general repository is that their results can be at variance with the results or the concepts of todays leaders
of the field. These established powerful people, their concepts and their pupils have
a great influence on the decisions of the editorial boards. The boards are,
therefore, not overly indulgent to results ore concepts which point in new
directions. It is the important benefit of the general repository publications that they will make it far more difficult to suppress results or concepts which are at variance
with the concepts which are generally accepted in the given time.
The realization of the wise and insightful proposal of E-Biomed will enhance
scientific productivity as well as truth in science.
Walter Ehrlich, M.D., Ph.D.
Johns Hopkins School of Public Health