NIH: Furor Over Publishing Research Via Internet
NIH Director Dr. Harold Varmus' proposal to create "E-biomed," an Internet clearinghouse for any and all research projects, has ignited a heated debate, particularly from the editors of medical journals, the New York Times reports. The operation would have "scientists disclose and disseminate the results of biomedical research on the Internet, making the full text of their reports available at no cost to anyone with a computer anywhere in the world." According to Varmus, such a site "would speed the progress of science by accelerating the exchange of information among researchers and by vastly increasing access to it." It would also act as "a democratizing force" by making available remote or unknown researchers' work. Varmus envisions the site as encompassing two main areas: one for research that has undergone full, traditional editorial review; the other for reports reviewed only by "two individuals with appropriate credentials." Dr. Charles Mobbs, an associate professor of neurobiology at the Mount Sinai School of Medicine, supports Varmus' vision, noting that the site could also contain "film sequences, three-dimensional images and large sets of data for which there is no space in printed journals." He added, "The taxpayer is willing to pay for our research; we have an obligation to make the results of that research available as quickly and efficiently as possible."
Backlash from the Medical Elite
Varmus' idea has drawn fire from critics who "fear that the NIH would become a rival that would put them out of the publishing business or slash the revenues they derive from their journals." Dr. Jerome Kassirer, editor-in-chief of The New England Journal of Medicine, noted that "E-biomed could have a disastrous effect" -- a view shared by The American Society of Microbiology and the American Physiological Society, which also produce journals, some of which command subscription prices up to $10,000 a year. Michael Cox, a biochemist at the University of Wisconsin in Madison, has a different concern, notably that E- biomed "will inevitably become a massive repository of taxpayer- supported junk. [But s]ince it will be supported or sponsored in some way by the NIH, it will be perceived as being legitimate." Other opponents note that patients could be harmed if a doctor followed unverified treatment methodologies described on the E- biomed site; journal articles typically are revised repeatedly before appearing in print. Still others fear the government's role in clinical research would be harmfully expanded through E- biomed. "I am adamantly opposed to any federal clearinghouse for scientific information," said Dr. David Farrell, an associate professor of oral molecular biology at the Oregon Health Sciences University in Portland. But Anthony Mazzaschi of the Association of American Medical Colleges noted, "Scientific communication is going to go electronic. It's just a question of when and how" (Pear, 6/8).