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Online Publishing and Repositories - PubMed Central vs. IASTMP

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Online Publishing and Repositories.
PubMed Central vs. IASTMP
Philip Fleckman
Dermatology Online Journal 5(2):13

While preparing for journal club last week, I reviewed the week's Current Contents on Disk for interesting titles. Having identified a few, I walked down to the library to look for the latest Journal of Cell Biology. It was nowhere to be found, so in desp eration I looked in the UW's online collection. Bingo. The full text article was there but turned out to be a poor choice. Same story for an article in another journal, but one of the references in it led to an interesting article in yet another journal, and the journal club topic was set. The printed PDF file was clean enough to print without ever having had the journal in my hands. This is not science fiction, it is reality.

Online publishing is embryonic. Only a few strictly electronic journals (such as the DOJ) exist; even fewer (such as the DOJ) are peer reviewed. However, many paper-based journals have jumped on the www bandwagon and offer tables of contents with articles for a fee (eg, the Journal of Investigative Dermatology), articles for subscribers (eg, Nature), and even online versions of printed issues with expanded data and letters (eg, the British Medical Journal).

Online publishing offers several advantages: accessibility, reduced cost (in some instances), and "interactivity, media capability, and dynamic response.[1] Many of the advantages are also disadvantages. Addressing these in reverse order, this journal wa s established to explore the flexibility of web-based publishing. These elements have been discussed by Art Huntley. [2]

The average biomedical journal price increased 268% between 1986 and 1998.[3] The University of Washington cancels serials annually - estimates for the 1999-01 biennium are that serials will increase 9.5% and books 2.5 0.000000or each year,[4] resulting in th e planned cancellation of over 400 journals, including the Australasian Journal of Dermatology, Current Problems in Dermatology, Science, and Scientific American, for this year. Some of these will be carried online, many will not.[5] Thus, online publish ing offers the prospect of reduced cost compared with print journals. However, cost is a double-edged sword. Yes, some online journals are free, but there is no free lunch. Even if one excludes the possibility of commercial bias, internet access is not wi thout cost. What did that flat-screen, 19 inch monitor (or what ever high tech instrument is your choice) you are reading this editorial from set you back? What is your monthly ISP fee? Some of us are fortunate to work for universities that believe provid ing fast internet access and free access to online journals is essential to our academic mission; many are not.

This journal is as available as a computer and internet tie; its audience is world wide. How accessible is the web to our audience, dermatologists? Of the 13,000 members, more than 1800 US and 600 international members have reported e-mail addresses to the Academy. The AAD estimates as many as 500f AAD members may access the web. Approximately 4,500 members access the Journal of the AAD monthly.[6]

The disadvantages of online publishing include issues of permanence, difficulty in reading ­ the "hold it in your hand factor",[7] control of information, and lack of credibility. Information control is difficult to judge in an online journal; how can one know whether commercial or other bias might support a particular website? The advantage of accessibility of the web is also one of its great shortcomings; the wealth of information does not guarantee its reliability. Credibility is earned by consistent p erformance and quality of per reviewed articles; no journal that is exclusively online has existed long enough to earn that.

Reading from a computer screen is unlike reading from a printed journal. Perhaps the next decade holds a satisfactory substitute. A printed journal is easily stored - library shelves are full of them. That's part of the problem. Although paper does deteri orate, it's not as easily erased or changed as a digital file. Thus the need for archiving the digital library. None the less, and despite the limitations of web-based publishing, it is the future.

Access, permanence, and the disproportionate increase in costs of medical journals led Harold Varmus and the NIH to propose E-biomed and its successor, PubMed Central, an online repository for "peer-reviewed reports from journals as well as reports that h ave been screened but not formally peer reviewed" - the products of "scientific publishers, professional societies, and other groups independent of the NIH."[8] This has been decried by some as a threat to the existence of good clinical journals.[9] Argu ments pro and con fly daily, but the National Academy of Sciences and the American Society for Cell Biology have agreed to participate, the European Society for Cell Biology is considering a European component, and at least two groups are setting up comme rcial components.[10,11,12,13] Major publishers (the IASTMP) have responded with a proposition to link their published material.[14]

Is electronic publishing "a threat to the existence of good clinical journals"? Certainly the DOJ is little competition to the published dermatology journals, nor is it meant to be. PubMed Central is another question. Perhaps, as with the revolution in he alth care delivery that emerged from rapidly escalating costs and limited access, the final product in modern medical publishing will be drastically different from what we know today. I enjoy sitting with a journal in my hands as much as anyone, but I am conventional, and change, though difficult, is inevitable and often productive.

Philip Fleckman
Chief editor


1. Bell C, Ruskin K: "E-biomed" and clinical research. Letter. N Engl J Med 341:1080-1081, 1999.

2. Huntley AC: Introducing Dermatology Online Journal. Dermatol Online J 1(1):1, 1995

3. "Where have all our journal dollars gone?" Books & Bytes, Spring 1999, Volume 11, Number 2,

4. Bengtson BL. Letter to the faculty, 18 October 1999.


6. Personal communication, Ms. Eileen Streu, AAD, 12 October, 1999.

7. Bernhard JD: Touch. J Amer Acad Dermatol 39:476-477, 1998.


9. Relman AS: The NIH "E-biomed" proposal ­ a threat to the evaluation and orderly dissemination of new clinical studies. N Engl J Med 340:1828-1829, 1999.

10. "NIH's Online Publishing venture Ready for Launch," Science 285:1466, 1999.

11. "Company to use advertising to cover Pubmed Central costs," Nature 401:516, 1999.

12. "PNAS joins peer-reviewed PubMed Central. Nature 401:733, 1999.

13. "Publishing group offers peer review on PubMed Central," Nature 402:110, 1999.

14. "Publishers agree on a 'seamless web,'" Nature 401:626, 1999.

© 1999 Dermatology Online Journal