Should online publishing be any of NIH's business?

By Wallace O. Keene

With two laws now on the books that prohibit the government from competing with the private sector, you'd think there would be more hue and cry about the E-biomed project proposed by the National Institutes of Health.

A little background: After much lobbying, Congress passed the Federal Activities Inventory Reform Act of 1998 late last year. FAIR was precipitated by the brouhaha over the Federal Aviation Administration's 1997 award of its $250 million Integrated Computing Environment-Mainframe and Networking contract to the Agriculture Department's National Information Technology Center in Kansas City, Mo. USDA had won the services contract in competition with systems integrators, prompting cries that both agencies had violated the Office of Management and Budget Circular A-76 prohibition on agencies competing with companies.

The enactment of FAIR was tumultuous, even though for the most part it merely codified the A-76 rules and promoted competition for commercial work. The requirement to consider private-sector options, by the way, had already been enacted a year earlier for IT activities as part of the Information Technology Management Reform Act.

Now there are two major pieces of legislation on the books promoting the movement of commercial IT efforts to the private sector. So the question is: Why has the federal IT community ignored NIH's E-biomed publishing initiative? By putting large volumes of medical and health research online under its own auspices, many think NIH's effort seeks to move in-house a successfully functioning, private-sector commercial activity'the editing and publishing of research reports.

As GCN's headline on its recent story about E-biomed put it, 'NIH Web publishing plan raises scientific journals' ire' [July 12, Page 1]. The issue of NIH's proposed role has also been raised in recent months in other publications. Hundreds of comments from scientists, both pro and con, are posted on the NIH Web site.

Members of the scientific community are concerned. They wonder if it makes sense for the principal grant-making authority to control what science information is made available to the public and whether E-biomed is a conflict of interest.

It is curious that NIH wants to pick up functions that are increasingly being performed well in the private sector by dozens if not hundreds of professional associations. Online journals abound; more than 150 are available via the High Wire Press site operated by Stanford University, at

Another question: Who would pay the cost of publishing under the NIH proposal? NIH has released no cost data. If NIH performed a cost analysis, it has not been made publicly available. Some private-sector sources estimate it would cost authors $4,000 to publish an article as outlined in the NIH proposal. Would we be moving the cost from the association's budget back to the federal grant? That would be unfair and contrary to FAIR.

I have wondered why the federal IT folks are not also in an uproar. One reason may be that agencies often ignore the management of their scientific and technical information, as though it was something apart from the chief information officer's purview. In 1995, for example, one scientific agency elevated its CIO function, then delegated its scientific and technical information activity to another part of the agency. That left the CIO to focus on procurement of hardware, software and services.

A done deal

The Health and Human Services, Commerce, Defense, Interior and Energy departments all have scientific and technical data and people to handle it, as does NASA. Many departments belong to organizations such as the National Federation of Abstracting and Indexing Societies and the Special Libraries Association. Thus they have been doing knowledge management for decades.

A rationale might exist for bringing a commercial activity into government, but no available data supports that in this case.

Knowledge management is a function already performed by the federal government. Agencies need to develop solid policies for its further growth'not in competition with the private sector but in support of it.

Wallace O. Keene, a former federal information resources management executive, is a principal with the Council for Excellence in Government in Washington.

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