we're in trouble! - (2 points)

U58563 at uicvm.uic.edu U58563 at uicvm.uic.edu
Fri Jul 1 23:26:05 EST 1994


First, I'd like to thank Dan Zebatakis --- I couldn't have argued as well
myself.  Then there are a few points to resolve:

1) The argument that a high school student has no business reading professional
journals seems like "common sense", but in fact this is exactly what I am
protesting --- if there is a complete separation between the sources a
scientist uses, and those the general public use, it is no surprise that some
members of the public will start making blatantly false statements about
"scientists" as a group.  Besides, there is inevitable delay and loss of
information in the translation.  An example with STD's, for instance, is clear:
a high school student consulting popularized sources will simply see that
AIDS is incurable; he won't see the efforts people are making.  So we see AIDS
activists who honestly believe that no one is doing anything at all to try to
help, and members of the general public who bleat "Why are we paying to cure a
virus?  Nobody can cure a virus!".  Finally, the new computer interfaces, such
as the excellent Nentrez program that searches at NCBI, make finding the
information much easier than before, so there is a real chance that young
students really will be able to pick out some meaningful information without
much work.

2) I never meant to suggest that people were getting rich from publishing.  The
inefficiency is in the system itself, much as communism is an inefficient
system for distributing automobiles.  To make an illustration, suppose everyone
who was NOT going to subscribe to Cell next year were somehow identified and
allowed to access and copy an electronic form freely.  How much would the
magazine lose?  Not a penny.  In the case of specialty journals with extremely
small circulations, the degree of inefficiency becomes almost infinite.

3) I see no reason to draw a distinction between how we deal with research and
with the publication of research.  We do research to make it publicly available
to all who want to know --- to pay for it, we ask for funding.  We don't sell
"rights".  Why should journals not be the same way?  Now yes, there is a
communist sort of inefficiency to a system in which a person could demand a
paper copy of a journal for nothing --- but there is no such problem if the
copy is an insubstantial electronic image sitting on any of a number of server
systems.  Indeed, it amazes me that the situation was ever allowed to progress
to the extent that it has --- I would have thought that funding organizations
would have demanded either a public domain report, or a report bearing their
own copyright, of everything the researcher does.  To publish this report in a
commercial journal would seem merely to be a popularization.  In any case, it
strikes me that such a measure could still be taken, which would finally end
this nonsense.  The journals would either have to accustom themselves to the
notion that a public-domain copy of each of their articles was being sent to
the National Library of Medicine, or give up the chance to publish NIH and NSC-
supported researchers.

4) Sooner or later we must face the fact that physical publishing in the
sciences is a dinosaur.  Considering the sheer volume of publications and the
restricted audience, which will demand ALL of them, it is amazing that it still
works at all!  In the next few years we are going to make a transition to
electronic information whether we like it or not, and we need to decide whether
to make it kicking and screaming, with an endless proliferation of passwords
and usage fees, or to make the transition in a planned, organized way that
recognizes our scientific ideals and for the first time makes every paper we
publish available to everyone.
   There will continue to be a place for the old journals to continue.  Many
researchers will need to hire the services of professionals to scan and
proofread high-quality graphics images and text, as well as options such as
movies and recorded sound that were not possible for printed journals.  Some
may wish to set up archive sites for large databases to be available on-line.
Above all, however, it is the readers who will continue to rely on highly
knowledgeable editors to select and review interesting and accurate articles.
But these people can, and must, be paid as researchers are paid, not by
mechanisms that require secrecy, but by organizations that promote scientific
progress.
                                                Mike Serfas



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