Proposal for NIH-Backed Online Venture

Low-cost biomedical publishing on the Internet could explode soon, if a plan drafted by the National Institutes of Health (NIH) takes off. Last week, NIH director Harold Varmus and colleagues circulated a proposal that could greatly expand the use of the Internet to distribute original biomedical papers. They anticipate that NIH will launch an online publication service "in the near future."

The proposal, dated 22 April and distributed by e-mail, is the first detailed presentation of ideas outlined by Varmus at a congressional hearing last month (Science, 12 March, p. 1610). The authors call the proposed venture "E-biomed." According to this scheme, scientists could approach E-biomed on several tracks. Those choosing the high-prestige route would submit papers to a network of peer reviewers--possibly the same reviewers now used by scientific societies and journals.

But authors would also have a radical alternative: a route to publication requiring virtually no review and no editing. This track would require only that an author obtain prior "validation" of an article from two members of a large panel of scientists. The validation process, the article says, should exclude "extraneous or outrageous material," but remain flexible enough "to permit rapid posting of virtually any legitimate work." While scientists might hesitate to use this shortcut at first, Varmus observes, they would probably warm to it. It would offer "simplicity, flexibility, and speed," he says, as well as access to a broad audience.

Varmus and his colleagues say that E-biomed could "maximize the dissemination" of new data, delivering information to more readers more rapidly than print journals. They praise the convenience of electronic search engines, which enable readers to mine old papers while keeping up with new ones. In addition, they say E-biomed would handle more complex data displays. They're enthusiastic about the low cost of electronic delivery, the ease of researching hyperlinked footnotes, and the potential for quick feedback from readers.

Despite such promises, however, E-biomed is already taking some criticism. David Botstein, chair of genetics at Stanford, gives a mixed review: He likes the concept, but not all the ambitious details of the E-biomed proposal. "The direction is correctly futuristic," Botstein says, "but if it were up to me, I would start with more modest measures."