Albert Hybl is an Associate Professor of Biophysics at the University of Maryland who believes traditional scientific publications are often controlled by editorial cliques that don't necessarily select the best or most original articles available. He says that Open Source, Internet-based scientific journals are the wave of the future. Jon Katz touched on this subject last month. Today Professor Hybl tells us exactly how "Slashdot-style" scientific e-publishing could gradually replace the old way, even though, he says, "this will put a lot of Journal publishers out of business, and they're going to do a lot of kicking and screaming before they go."
Open Source Scientific PublicationJust as Gutenberg is credited for creating the movable type printing press, Harold Varmus, director of the National Institutes of Health, may be regarded as the creator of the E-Library.
The printing press provided a means to distribute multiple copies of political pamphlets, advertising posters, legal documents, novels -- and Journals containing scientific discoveries.
Scientific Societies use these Journals to disseminate research findings. The expense of Society membership and the additional fees for subscription to multiple Journals has gone out-of-bounds for both individual investigators and institutional libraries. It is just not feasible to expect a scientist/researcher or a member of the public to be able to subscribe to all of them or even to a few specialized Journals.
PubMed provides a powerful search engine for locating biomedical articles. PubMed searches are superior to browsing the specialty Journals. However, once you have used PubMed to find an article of interest you must then locate a library housing the Journal in which it appears, that has a Xerox machine with which to make copies of the sought-after articles.
Harold Varmus proposes that an open access e-repository be established to maintain permanent on-line and downloadable archives of scientific literature. The most obvious advantage of this to the researcher is immediate access to any published report via a hyperlink from the PubMed database. E-reports can also contain more information than print Journals, including larger data sets in various formats, pictures with greater detail, or even movies. Many of the costs associated with the publication of a Journal are avoided. Cited literature [footnotes] can also be hyperlinks, which simplifies in-depth background analysis for serious researchers.
Harold Varmus's proposal describes two methods for submission of a new report that could operate side-by-side. The first is to use the established editorial boards, and the second would be through a publicly available preprint repository.
European backers of Varmus's Proposal tend to favor the first, "closed" method of submission. Their claim is that by sticking to the traditional method there is less chance that the database would be flooded by poor quality reports. A subliminal reason for their desire to maintain editorial control might be that delayed publication gives the group that reviews the data extra time to analyze and extract ideas for future research before it is made available to the world.
With the second submission method, each submitted report would only need to be given a cursory review to eliminate voodoo science (SPAM for health care scams or unhealthy foods, etc.) before it was placed, unedited and unreviewed, into the preprint repository, where any interested party could read it. Each "preprint" report could be given a version number like most Open Source Software projects use. Perhaps the "development" version could show editorial strike-outs and new text in different colors from the original. The next higher, "stable" version would be the reviewed, edited, author-corrected copy. Still higher versions might contain supplementary information. Even after they are published, the lower versions should be archived and accessible for historical use.
The Harold Varmus Proposal would require an article to obtain two favorable reviews, perhaps from members of established editorial boards, before it was transfered from the preprint repository to the general repository. Varmus also touches on the possibility of more open reviewing "in which critiques of the scientific reports are accessible and signed." (Today, most scientific papers are reviewed anonymously.) I suggest that, in addition to solicited reviews, signed, unsolicited reviews should also be considered.
The electronic submission, publication, editing, indexing, archiving, retrieval and utilization of scientific reports, abstracts, and data is taking a significant turn, and Varmus's Proposal may help make that a turn for the better.
I, like Varmus, believe that since most scientific research is funded by the public, the public should have free access to it from open E-libraries via the Internet, and that the only person who should be allowed to claim "ownership" of a scholarly article is the person who wrote it.
No Scientific Society or Journal Publisher should be allowed to hold a copyright on scientific knowledge. The researcher is the only one who has the right to claim, "I discovered it and I reported it."