A Proposal for Electronic Publications in the Biomedical Sciences
How do we guarantee equity in the new system?
Although the current system of scientific publishing can be criticized for lapses of fairness, it has, in general, served us well. Thus any new system must be developed with concern for the ambitions of trainees, little-known scientists, or scientists at less prestigious institutions or foreign sites. Clearly, electronic communication has enormous advantages for people in all of these categories, because it is a democratizing force that makes distance and wealth nearly irrelevant. However, it is important to ensure that opportunities to enter reports into E-biomed are just as rich as the opportunities to access the reports filed by others. The editorial boards and the Board of Governors will need to give careful attention to this issue; for instance, it will be imperative to provide a means for any author, however remotely located or poorly known, to have access to two "members" of the system to validate reports submitted to the general repository.
How should E-biomed get started?
We offer this proposal---and hope to publish it in a widely read journal---with the goal of stimulating a much broader discussion of electronic publishing before initiating E-biomed. In this way, we hope to engage the editorial boards and publishers of existing journals, members of scientific societies, and the entire scientific community in a vigorous international discussion over the next few months.
Several questions should be addressed, while recognizing that satisfactory answers to some of them can be obtained only by empirical tests of the E-biomed proposal:
Once these and other questions have been considered, the NIH will publicize an appropriately modified proposal, assemble the Governing Board, and establish the E-biomed site with the Board's guidance.
The advent of the electronic age and the rise of the Internet offer an unprecedented opportunity to change scientific publishing in ways that could improve on virtually all aspects of the current system. The NIH has addressed this opportunity by proposing a new system, E-biomed, that has many advantages over the existing means of disseminating research findings: open access, greater speed, reduced cost, and enhanced depth of presentation. We now welcome constructive comments from the scientific community, with the intention of putting a suitably revised plan into operation in the near future.
Addendum (June 20, 1999)
A few weeks ago, our description of E-biomed, a proposed electronic publishing system for biomedical research, was circulated widely, reported in Nature and Science, and posted on the NIH web site. Since then, my colleagues and I have received many comments and questions and engaged in several spirited discussions of the proposed goals and methods with a variety of interested parties. In addition, the proposal has been both criticized and praised in several prominent journals and newspapers. The diversity of opinions and the number of questions suggest that the debate will and should continue for some time. But we believe that it is useful at this point to restate the central issues more clearly and offer responses to the most frequent questions and criticisms.
The core objectives of E-biomed
E-biomed is intended to be a new and more effective means to organize, disseminate, use, and store the information and ideas generated by the international biomedical research community. We envision a system for electronic publication in which existing journals, newly created journals, and an essentially unrestricted collection of scientific reports can be accessed and searched with great ease and without cost by anyone connected to the Internet. In a sense, what we are proposing is an electronic public library of medicine and other life sciences. Journals that participate in the E-biomed system would be expected to exercise expert review and editing functions. The NIH, in conjunction with other organizations, would contribute technical expertise, participate in the development of the governance of the system, and help with financial support.
The system we propose is intended to make knowledge and ideas in life sciences widely and freely accessible to the scientific community and the public, in the tradition of free public libraries. In no sense should E-biomed be interpreted as a proposal to interfere with, control, or restrict the activities of existing journals or other vehicles for transmitting scientific information. Rather it is intended to develop new opportunities to improve the communication of science.
Three elements of the proposal are essential and warrant restatement:
(I) Accessibility: To provide all potential readers with full electronic access to a wide body of life science literature, in a manner that is free of barriers, international in scope, and seamless in operation.
Offering the international scientific community free, fast, and full access to the entire biomedical research literature is the most important goal of our proposal. As originally described, anyone, anywhere, who is connected to Internet can go to a single site at any time and look at the entire biomedical research literature---to search with pertinent terms, inspect the offerings of favorite journals, and download articles for subsequent study. Such access will allow all investigators to make the best and quickest use of the new findings that public and private funding sources around the world have paid for, and it will give citizens of all nations the greatest hope that new information will be efficiently used to understand biological systems and develop effective interventions against disease. With appropriate design of the system's infrastructure and provisions for multiple electronic maintenance sites and hard-copy archives, we can also guarantee the stability of a system on which the entire research community will come to depend.
We believe that such unfettered access to a growing and secure database can be achieved without sacrificing the functions that have served the research community well for many years, including rigorous peer review and discriminating editorial decisions. Moreover, we believe that a richer set of information can be made available within a system that takes full advantage of electronic communication
(ii) Flexibility: To use the full potential of electronic communication to present the findings of the scientific community in a fashion that promotes understanding, encourages discussion, and includes the entirety of relevant information.
Increasing use of electronic methods is already changing the way scientists communicate with each other. But the vast majority of reports are still being written with the intent to publish on paper, thereby limiting the potential utility of electronic methods to advance the dissemination and understanding of science. Preparation of reports explicitly for electronic publishing through E-biomed would allow authors to describe methods in full, to show complete data sets, to make better use of graphics, to invite the attachment of commentaries by interested readers, and to construct reports in a "layered" format that moves from condensed to increasingly detailed descriptions and interpretations. The E-biomed system will also encourage the description of experimental work, from both laboratory and clinical investigators, that lacks definitive or "positive" results and hence is unlikely to be accepted for publication in most current journals; such work, however, is often useful to others contemplating similar experimental approaches and could be readily accommodated within E-biomed.
(iii) "Evolvability": To design a system for electronic publication that is capable of evolving in a variety of directions, so that uncertainties about operation and governance can be resolved through experience.
Because our proposal is ambitious and addresses issues central to the conduct of research, we have tried to incorporate alternative modes of action wherever possible, to allow E-biomed to evolve as we learn from experience and in response to the changes in attitudes and practices that are likely to occur as the system is developed and used. Most obviously, we have offered two methods for posting reports---one that depends on traditional review under the supervision of multiple, independent editorial boards and one that requires only validation that the report meets certain minimal standards. We expect that the vast majority of reports are likely to be submitted through editorial boards, since the biomedical research community relies heavily on the review process for discriminating among a large number of articles. But we also believe that much useful information will be communicated through the "minimal screening" route and that, with time, the community will learn to use this material effectively, in ways suggested in a later section. Such choices allow evolution.
We also expect the governance and financing of the system to evolve. Once an initial advisory group (called the Board of Governors in the initial proposal) has been established, its membership will change as new entities become involved with the project. The overarching rules of operation might also then undergo change. Many aspects of the system, however, would be under the jurisdiction of individual editorial boards and would evolve in accord with the relationships among authors, editors, and readers of each journal. (For example, while we favor the idea that copyright would be retained by authors, editorial boards could choose to hold copyrights; this policy decision might then influence the choice some authors make about the boards to which their reports would be sent for review. Or the means for financing the review and redaction activities of a journal might vary among journals and over time.)
Finally, we expect that the E-biomed system will change the way individual scientists use the scientific literature. This will, in turn, stimulate entrepreneurial activity in the private sector, encouraging the development of printed or electronic guides to interesting new reports in the various fields represented in E-biomed. Such commercial opportunities would also serve the scientific community well, in the manner illustrated by the "value-added" features of some current journals, including reviews of scientific fields, recent articles, and new books.
Responses to the E-biomed proposal
The literally hundreds of written and verbal responses that we have received thus far are too varied to describe individually, but several issues have been repeatedly raised, suggesting (in some instances) a lack of clarity in the original proposal and (in others) substantial policy issues that may be resolved only by further debate, experimentation, and evolution. Perhaps the most impressive message, however, is the widespread recognition of the significance of electronic publishing and the inevitability of its expansion. This suggests that the central questions now are: How rapidly will the expansion occur? And what form will the expanded use assume? The E-biomed proposal attempts to identify the ingredients of an idealized system for disseminating, storing, and retrieving scientific information, including the core qualities of accessibility, flexibility, and "evolvability".
Another important aspect of the response to date has been the diversity of respondents---people from many scientific disciplines; citizens of many countries; editors, publishers, leaders of scientific organizations, governmental officials, and the scientific rank-and-file. The international interest has been especially noteworthy, since we are eager to insure that development of the E-biomed initiative proceeds as a collaborative effort involving many countries and many agencies. In this regard, we have been particularly pleased by the interest shown by leaders of the European Molecular Biology Organization (EMBO) and the European Molecular Biology Laboratory (EMBL). We are discussing a potential partnership with them that would immediately bring an international perspective to the project, allow technical matters to be developed jointly between the NCBI and the EBI, and encourage other organizations to collaborate in this initiative.
The National Academy of Sciences will conduct its annual workshop on electronic publishing on June 24, and E-biomed will be presented and discussed on that occasion. We also anticipate organizing one or more meetings devoted entirely to E-biomed in the late summer or early fall, but the places, dates, and auspices have yet to be determined.
Considering major concerns
Even before these meetings occur, we believe that it may be helpful to attempt to respond to several criticisms of (and anxieties about) E-biomed that have been expressed by our correspondents. In the following sections, an underlined question is followed by our response.
Will E-biomed eliminate peer-review and existing journals?
This is, most emphatically, not our intention. On the contrary, we are eager to encourage journals, especially those with strong reputations for rigorous reviewing and careful editing, to become part of the system. We believe that this is the outcome that most authors and readers desire. We also expect that prestigious editorial boards will be newly assembled to establish peer-reviewed electronic journals operating within E-biomed.
Why won't E-biomed just achieve in a more complex way what some current journals are already doing through their own electronic publishing efforts?
This question reveals a fundamental misconception about the differences between our proposal and practices now developing in the publishing community. At present, each individual reader or institution must negotiate the cost of timely access to the electronic versions of each journal (or the journals from each society or publisher). These fees may be large and, in some cases, the licensing agreements with institutions include contentious provisions (e.g. a requirement for compensation for any loss of print subscriptions at that institution as a result of the license). In our plan, all prospective readers would have access to any component of the E-biomed repetoire, as soon as it appears in electronic form, without any payments, special terms, or negotiations. The operation of the E-biomed system and its component editorial boards will, of course, entail considerable costs; some methods for paying for these costs are considered below.
Won't E-biomed encourage the deposition of vast quantities of valueless or erroneous information in a public repository?
Recall that E-biomed is proposed to consist of two major components. The first will contain electronic refereed journals, some of which will also occur in print. Since these journals will operate with traditional peer review and editing, the questions that address the quality of the information in E-biomed do not apply to this component. The second, unreviewed component has the great value of putting on the public record a large body of potentially important data that might not otherwise be available to the scientific community and the public. This latter component, however, is thought by some to offer tempting opportunities to disseminate information of marginal value or accuracy. But few scientists would knowingly put such information into the public domain, because it would soon diminish their reputations. (For example, according to Paul Ginsparg, in the several years of experience with e-print, the electronic pre-print file used by physicists, willful deposition of erroneous information has not been a significant problem.) The opportunity for readers to attach comments will provide a means for retrospective evaluation of directly posted reports and further reinforce the pressure for authors to conform to high scientific standards. Nevertheless, since the life sciences constitute a wide range of fields, some of which have an immediate impact on public health and policy, careful attention to the deposition and retrieval of unreviewed reports may be advisable, especially in the early phases of operation. For instance, the E-biomed advisory board might restrict submissions to certain fields until the system has been tested, or search engines might be designed to survey subsections of the unreviewed component of E-biomed separately. Regardless of other measures, it will be essential to label very clearly which entries in the repository have undergone critical review and editing and which have been deposited without review.
We anticipate that users of E-biomed will eventually learn how to approach information in the repository that is potentially interesting because of its subject matter, but lacks the immediate accreditation conferred by high quality peer review and endorsement by an editorial board. Some readers will be attracted by favorable comments attached to these reports after posting, and others may depend on the mention of such reports in newly created "guides" to E-biomed.. Of course, some readers may choose to ignore the entries in E-biomed that are not included in the listings of journals, especially the first-rank journals, just as many do now. But the option of seeing all available information in a field---including failed experiments, improvements in experimental methods, or unsuccessful clinical trials, often usefully annotated with commentaries posted by others in the same field---is a powerful incentive for those who are willing to look more broadly. At present this is an nearly impossible task, because results are presented in so many journals that are difficult to examine, because they are offered only at individual websites that are not surveyed by convenient search engines, or because they are not publicly available at all.
Isn't E-biomed likely to be construed as a take-over by the U.S. government of an activity that should be international in character and belong in the private sector?
This is an unfortunate misreading of our proposal. We at the NIH seek to improve the dissemination of scientific knowledge, and we are willing to contribute technical assistance and financial support to catalyze useful changes. But we insist that the efforts be international and collaborative in design and practice. Indeed it will fail if the international scientific community is not broadly represented in its operation and governance. The system we have proposed welcomes the participation of existing journals, does not obligate any journals to join, and would not be owned by the NIH or any other component of the U.S. government.
Won't E-biomed undermine the viability of scientific societies by depriving them of significant sources of income currently derived from subscriptions, membership fees, and advertising?
We acknowledge that several important scientific societies currently depend on their journals to raise the revenues that support the journals themselves and various other beneficial activities. But we can envision gradual changes in the operation of scientific societies that would allow them to continue their many functions, including editorial work, without compromising the development of an optimal general system for dissemination of research findings---an outcome that the members of any scientific society will strongly desire. First, for each journal that elects to join E-biomed, the editorial board would need to consider the means available for recovering the costs of reviewing, formatting, and editing the entries in each journal (some of these means are discussed in a subsequent section). Second, some societies may be able to alter their financial planning to compensate for losses due to a transition to an electronic system that operates in the manner proposed for E-biomed. For example, additional revenues could be raised from annual meetings, from workshops organized by the society, or from increased annual fees justified by the many valuable activities performed on behalf of the membership. In the future, additional fund-raising activities might include the production of specialized, annotated collections of material from E-biomed, selected by experts for their colleagues in a society.
Won't E-biomed place the scientific community at risk of losing vast quantities of published data because of inadequate provisions for archiving?
We view this danger as very remote. New entries would be deposited at "mirror sites" and the entire collection would be in active use at multiple sites. We envision no difficulty in maintaining even the very large database envisioned in the E-biomed proposal, as long as there continues to be economical growth of space available on hard disks. Nevertheless, for additional security, we expect to store all of the contents of E-biomed on back-up tapes, CD-Rom, or long-lived paper at more than one site.
Isn't E-biomed an inappropriate means for publishing clinical research?
Some commentators have expressed concerns that information bearing directly on patient care or public health policies might be accepted uncritically by physicians, other health care providers, or patients themselves, if it appears in the context of E-biomed, thereby subjecting patients to unacceptable risks. We judge these concerns to be misplaced. As is the case presently, the results posted in E-biomed that are most likely to affect health care will have been subjected to critical review and editing by journals. Readers of reports in E-biomed will be clearly informed about how reports are entered in the database, which results have been reviewed and by which editorial board. As everyone knows, a large amount of medically relevant information of highly variable quality is already available on the Internet, but its origins and evaluation are usually much less obvious than will be the case for reports available through E-biomed.
Other respondents have noted that the E-biomed proposal offers some special advantages for the presentation of clinical research findings. These include full access to large data sets; posting of results from inconclusive or "negative" trials of new interventions that might otherwise not be publicly available; and the utility of search engines for surveying a large literature.
How can the E-biomed Governing Board possibly keep track of thousands of reports in many participating journals?
This question reflects a misunderstanding of the relationship we envision between the E-biomed advisory board and the editorial boards participating in the system. The editorial boards of individual journals would continue to maintain surveillance over the reports submitted to them. The advisory group would be responsible for general policies (e.g. to insure interoperability among the member journals) and for the rules that apply to the submissions to the repository of unedited reports.
Won't the screening process for unreviewed reports to be posted in the general E-biomed repository be unfair to those who lack appropriate "contacts"?
Several correspondents have expressed an appropriate concern that the use of members of the scientific community with certain credentials to serve as screeners might create inappropriate barriers to submission. We agree that it might be simpler and more fair to use employed staff for this purpose, since the screening process is not intended to involve critical judgment, simply exclusion of libelous, salacious, or otherwise unsuitable material. These are ultimately matters for the system's advisory board to determine.
How will E-biomed avoid accentuating economic or language-based disparities in the access to the research literature?
Some have argued that E-biomed would further limit the access to the scientific literature accorded to those who work under limited economic circumstances or understand only languages other than English. We acknowledge that such disparities currently exist, but we believe that free access to the scientific literature in electronic form has a much greater prospect of reducing the disparities than do other means. In most parts of the world, a computer with Internet connections is much less expensive and much faster than subscriptions to biomedical journals. Moreover, the Internet and its successors are evolving rapidly and becoming increasingly accessible worldwide, but there is no comparable trend towards inexpensive and rapid access to the scientific literature in print form. Finally, it is reasonable to expect that E-biomed can facilitate efforts to reduce language barriers to scientific communication by freely providing reports in an electronic format suitable for automated or traditional translation.
Unresolved issues that require further study or can be resolved only through experience
We have been asked a number of important questions that are difficult to answer without further work. In this section, we list some of these with brief responses. We anticipate that many of them will be discussed at forthcoming workshops on electronic publishing.
How much will E-biomed cost?
To approach this still unanswered question, it will help to separate the infrastructural costs of E-biomed (the search and retrieval systems, the operating hardware and software, technical help at storage sites, etc.) from the scalable costs of handling peer review, editing, and redaction. We are attempting to determine the likely costs of converting some existing journals into an electronic mode, taking into consideration the costs of reviewing, editing, and redacting. We are also trying to estimate what the NIH, other funding agencies, and individuals currently spend on publication of biomedical research, in the form of subscription fees, page charges, reprint purchases, paper copying, and institutional library costs.
How should funds be raised to pay for the expenses associated with electronic publishing of journals that provide peer review, editorial oversight, and redaction?
This very important issue will need to be thoroughly addressed by the proposed international governing body of E-biomed. Decisions will undoubtedly be influenced by considerations of both philosophy and costs, and many of them will likely be left to individual journals and publishers. One straightforward strategy would be the imposition of fees for authors---perhaps a small fee at the time of submission and a larger one at the time of acceptance. This is consistent with practices that are currently widespread and, if exceptions for authors in financially constrained circumstances are readily allowed, it is likely to be fair. Other options include advertising schemes and distribution of funds provided by research agencies, philanthropies, or industries; these raise a number of complex issues that will require debate.
Who will hold the copyright to articles that appear within edited sites in E-biomed?
Although we favor the notion that authors will retain copyright, this is a matter that could largely be left to individual editorial boards to resolve. The advisory board might, however, want to consider the possibility that some "fair use" policy should be adhered to by all journals participating in the system, even those that choose to retain copyright.
What should E-biomed be called? And what should be its disciplinary boundaries?
E-biomed is a provisional name for the proposed electronic publishing system, not a URL or e-mail address; because it has gained some currency in discussion of the proposal, it should probably not be discarded until an international advisory board is formed and a final name adopted. When this happens, the board will apply to the Library of Congress and other venues for appropriate registration of electronic addresses to avoid conflicts with any other similar names.
We agree with suggestions that our earlier description of the boundaries for E-biomed may appear too narrow; for example, it seems to exclude plant biology. A larger scope, such as life sciences, might be more appropriate, but only a representative advisory board can make authoritative decisions about the disciplines that should be included at the outset. Of course, the boundaries might change over time.
The conversion of scientific publishing from a paper-based to an electronic format is occurring rapidly. The scientific community has a natural and powerful interest in helping to shape the new means by which its findings and ideas will be transmitted. It is in that spirit that we have made our initial proposal; we hope that the views presented here will continue to promote public discussion of the future of scientific publishing.
[This addendum was prepared by Harold Varmus, in collaboration with David Lipman and Pat Brown, with helpful advice from Fotis Kafatos, Frank Gannon, Tony Fauci, and several others.]
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