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Research Information Is Good - More Is Better!
December 1999
by Wyn Snow, Managing Editor

We applaud the new www.PubMedCentral.nih.gov website scheduled to go live in January 2000. According to a story in the November 1, 1999 edition of The Boston Globe, PubMedCentral plans to publish medical research articles submitted by "certifying groups" without requiring the lengthy peer-review process typically associated with medical journals. This is a radical departure from the methods of such publications as the Journal of The American Medical Association and the New England Journal of Medicine.

In our own work developing SupplementQuality.com, we investigated many sources of information about dietary supplements. We were able to develop a rich array of links to primary and secondary sources. However, we often found that the peer review process meant to protect the public has led to de facto censorship of ideas and research that might otherwise have provided a rich resource for visitors to our site.

Foreign research and alternative medical knowledge

Again and again we found that research published in Germany (a major source of clinical study for dietary supplements) was dismissed because it was written in a language other than English. Ethno-botanical and other academic studies based on centuries of experience by indigenous peoples and non-Western civilizations were also ignored as not fitting within the parameters of traditional medical practice.

Chinese herbal and Ayurvedic medicine, for instance, draw on rich streams of knowledge and practice largely outside of Western medical experience. Studies on dietary supplements, whose use by the general public is on a sharp upward curve, are often difficult to find and retrieve. The overall effect of "gate keeping" by "authoritative" publications is to unfairly deny information access to individuals and groups.

Supporters of PubMedCentral include prominent mainstream

While the impetus behind PubMedCentral is radical, it is hardly out of the mainstream. Its prime mover is Dr. Harold Varmus, an advocate of "fast, barrier-free access to medical research." Varmus, head of the National Institute of Health (NIH), won the 1989 Nobel Prize for groundbreaking work on cancer genes. He will leave the NIH at the end of 1999 to head up Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center in New York. Another PubMedCentral supporter is David Lipman, director of the National Center for Biotechnology Information at the National Library of Medicine. Both individuals are in the employ of the federal government and are hardly on the fringe.

According to the Globe article, a still-to-be-created committee will be charged with determining the qualifications for a "certifying group." At present, the only requirement is that a group include at least three members who are principal investigators on research grants from agencies such as the NIH, the National Science Foundation and the Department of Energy.

Editorial reaction from mainstream medical journals

Reaction from editors and observers associated with paper-based journal publishing, such Dr. Marcia Angell, interim editor-in-chief of the New England Journal of Medicine, was immediate and critical. Angell notes that Web-based publication of the full text of a study would make paper journals largely irrelevant.

"I believe in the marketplace of ideas," says Angell, " but you can't just throw up everything - advertising, old wives's tales, research studies - on the Net and hope people can figure out what's valid and what isn't." We think otherwise, but while Angell soldiers on protecting "people" from "what's valid and what isn't," getting PubMedCentral on line seems only fair.

As a footnote to this discussion, Dr. George Lundberg, former editor of the highly influential Journal of the American Medical Association, is now the editor of Medscape, an on-line health information service.

A matter of public record and open access to research findings

While medical authorities struggle with the appropriateness of making unreviewed study results available on line, a simple observation is in order: Grant recipients from federal agencies such as NIH and NSF must file summary reports of findings with their sponsors as a matter of law. In effect, Varmus and Lipman are merely proposing that such information be made immediately and generally available on PubMedCentral. In that such information is a matter of public record and more open access to research findings can only stimulate more critical discussion and investigation, one can only wonder at Dr. Angell's skepticism.

We do not anticipate that PubMedCentral will have a near-term impact on the number and effect of studies on dietary supplements such as those sponsored by the NIH. But by making research information openly and immediately available, Varmus and Lipman are accepting what Angell appears to deny: Research information is good; more information is better.end-of-story



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(c) Copyright 1999-2003 Dietary Supplement Quality Initiative. For permission to reprint, please contact our editor.