Information Is Good - More Is Better!
by Wyn Snow, Managing Editor
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.
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.
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.
research and alternative medical knowledge
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.
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.
of PubMedCentral include prominent mainstream
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.
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.
reaction from mainstream medical journals
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.
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.
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
matter of public record and open access to research findings
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.
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.