This article updates a version that appeared in the November 22 issue of iMP: The Magazine of Information Impacts [formerly]. The author was at the time a consultant to the NIH on PubMed Central.

The strength of a powerful idea is the opportunities it presents. Good ideas open doors; they do not close them. PubMed Central, the new barrier-free repository of life-sciences research reports at the National Institutes of Health, is a good idea.

Harold Varmus, former director of the National Institutes of Health, proposed PubMed Central almost a year ago to counter what he saw as a roadblock to the advancement of science through the free exchange of ideas. The elements of PubMed Central are:

  • The NIH will establish a Web repository for peer-reviewed articles in the life sciences, submitted by accredited journals.
  • The articles will be stored in a database at the NIH, to be searched and retrieved at no charge to the user. The NIH will absorb the costs of establishing and maintaining the archive, which it estimates to be between $2 million and $3 million a year.
  • The NIH will be responsible for perpetual archiving, updating the technology as necessary so that the information will not be lost to future generations of scientists.
  • Articles will be submitted in the SGML format, using one of the publicly available DTDs.
  • Submitting journals must be indexed by one of the major indexing and abstracting services, or must have on their editorial boards at least three scientists who hold research grants from major funding agencies.
  • PubMed Central will accept article deposition prior to publication, concurrent with publication, or after publication.
  • The NIH will not seek copyright, only the right to store articles in the database and make them available.

PubMed Central opened to the public in early February with two journals, Microbiology of the Cell and Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. As scientists and publishers see the advantages of this new facility, other journals will join. The advantages of PubMed Central will go far beyond barrier-free access. Imagine, for instance:

  • The Ephemeral Journal

    A group of researchers decides that it's important to explore work in a narrow field, work that they believe will inform research in related fields for years to come. They decide to publish papers on that work in what they call an online conference, one that has poster sessions but minimal discussion. They call it a "journal" for want of a better name, constitute themselves as an editorial board, set up the format on line for submission of articles, do rigorous peer review in a short period (this is, after all, a subject that is exciting to these researchers), and publish on PubMed Central, knowing that when the current set of articles is made available, they can retire, their job as editors of The Journal of Latest Stuff is done. The papers will be linked to the body of life-sciences literature, and made available in perpetuity to researchers interested in the subject. Thus the evanescent journal is formed from the virtual conference. This journal is evanescent in the organizational sense only: The management apparatus is ephemeral; the content lives on.

  • The U Biomedical Review

    Most good law schools have law reviews, and good business schools have business reviews. Why don't good medical schools have medical reviews? Certainly the talent is there. And what about the nation's top graduate schools in biotechnology fields? Why shouldn't they feature the excellence of their researchers or graduate students? Such a publication might even be run by the library, the campus facility that has the most to gain from the free availability of quality research reports. PubMed Central offers the publishing facility; universities can do the SGML conversion in house, or work with one of the groups that is offering setup services to PubMed Central participants. (A list of some of those groups is at the PubMed Central Web site.) Universities and medical schools already pay for writing, review, and often editing in the time it allows for its scholars to do that work. The additional costs may turn out to be less than the cost of comparable subscriptions.

    Most law journals and business journals cover a range of specialties to accommodate (and promote) the range of expertise within their institutions. Might not medical and biotechnology graduate programs do the same? With PubMed Central's cross-journal search engine and hyperlinked references, following a trail of information across medical reviews will be no problem for the researcher.

  • Twigging

    "Twigging" is the publishing term for the break-away journals, those that focus on a subset of their parent journals, meeting needs for more specialization within the research reporting. Twigging is notorious because it sometimes produces journals so specialized that their entire subscription base is the two hundred libraries of the institutions where the two hundred researchers in the field do their work. Untrammeled twigging can bring down a publishing empire. On the other hand, twigging allows small specialties to communicate. With PubMed Central, the economic risks are limited. Space is available on line. A parent journal might choose to include abstracts of subset articles in its paper edition, and have the full texts on line. Or the subspecialty researchers could start their new journal on line and watch usage. If it is appreciable, then there may be arguments for publishing in paper. If it remains small, then a society or publisher does not incur the costs of floating a new journal in a small market.

There are probably dozens of other uses of PubMed Central that are not obvious today. The door is open. The life-sciences research community needs to explore the possibilities that open door presents, and see where they lead. That is the way scientists always respond to a Good Idea.

Judith Axler Turner pioneered the many electronic publishing innovations made by The Chronicle of Higher Education in the late Twentieth Century as their Director of Electronic Publishing. She now fills the same job at Turner Consulting Group, where she works with clients to add richness and depth to their Web efforts. Those who have benefited from her services include federal-government agencies, national and international associations, and private industry. She is also an enthusiastic speaker at seminars and meetings.

Judith Axler Turner may be reached by e-mail at

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