So long, Shangri-la

So long, Shangri-la

Thomas R. Temin

The brouhaha over a Web project at the National Institutes of Health shows how mature the Internet has become and how careful agencies that use the Web to post information should be.

Not so long ago, the Net was the exclusive domain of scientists, engineers and academics who shared an understanding about openness and integrity of postings. But let's face it: That Shangri-la has been totally bulldozed, never to return.

E-biomed, an online publishing project proposed by NIH's director, Dr. Harold Varmus, for scientific papers, has drawn fire from the publishers of scientific journals [GCN, July 12, Page 1].

One criticism of the online project is that it would create a forum for papers that have not undergone vigorous peer review, making questionable information available to the great unwashed.

A second complaint is that E-biomed would compete with print journals, some of which command four-figure annual subscription fees accompanied by paid, not free, Web access.

The fact is that Joe Citizen probably gets most of his science news from sources such as '20/20' and Time magazine. He probably cannot discriminate good science from bad.

NIH must consider carefully whether it wants to put minimally reviewed material online, lest it become party to erroneous research'or worse.

On the other hand, publishers of any print material delude themselves if they think they can bottle the Web genie back up. So the question becomes: Would NIH be violating the Office of Management and Budget's Circular A-76 prohibitions against competing with the private sector?

One NIH critic predicted that Congress would intervene. Such a statement usually means somebody's already complained to the Hill.

At a recent conference, Kurt Molholm, administrator of the Defense Technical Information Center, said, 'The electronic environment is not a linear extension of the paper environment.' This truism is manifesting itself in a lot of ways, as NIH is finding out.

NIH should proceed with caution on this one.

Thomas R. Temin

Editorial director


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