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EDITORIAL: Venter s Last Laugh? Or Collins Last Stand?

NEW YORK, Dec 13 - The White House managed to broker a deal to get Francis Collins and Craig Venter to share the credit for sequencing the human genome , but based on Collins’ recent letter to Science it appears that a repeat performance, at least in print, is unlikely to happen.

Unless, of course, the parties involved decide that the price of having Celera publish its paper in Science while the Human Genome Project publishes its paper in Nature is not good for Science , Celera, or the Human Genome Project.

While Nature’s editors must be delighted by the turn of events, the discord surrounding publication of the papers is likely to turn what should be a happy occasion into a rather sad state of affairs for the scientific community.

Some members of the community, including high-up officials in the public project as well as corporate leaders, see Science’s bold decision to cut a deal with Celera as an indication that the rules governing peer-reviewed journals are changing. They speculate that the deal with Celera sets a dangerous precedent, which could soon become the norm, restricting and complicating public access to scientific data and hindering the progress of scientific research. And the public's trust in the venerable journal Science has been considerably shaken.

As for the International Human Genome Project, researchers must once again be reeling over the fact that they lost some of their glory to Celera. Don’t let the word “international” at the start of the Human Genome Project’s name fool you into thinking that it’s actually better to publish in an overseas journal like Nature than in Washington-based Science, the largest scientific journal worldwide.

For his part, Collins might well find some solace in appearing to be the champion of the scientific community’s interests. He can say that he stood by the ideals shared by his peers – no matter that some members of the public project have actually indicated that they think the compromise between Celera and Science was a fair one.

The most frustrating part of this for the Human Genome Project must surely be that, no matter which way you look at the situation, Celera once again comes out on top. As a result of the compromise, Celera will be able to receive the accolades of its peers while protecting its corporate interests. Celera, however, might not want to be seen as the big bad wolf that caused the Human Genome Project to flee to the other side of the ocean.

Meanwhile, where does this leave the players involved?

While Barbara Jasny, supervisory senior editor at Science , has said that the journal would not make the terms of the material transfer agreement for access to Calera’s data public until the paper is published, the journal has also indicated that the terms of the deal have not been finalized.

Perhaps Science , which certainly wants to publish the HGP’s paper, will try to convince Celera to make some of the terms more flexible, or at least to reveal them to the public project in order to assuage current fears.

Celera in turn could decide that helping Science is in its interest and opt for the loosest possible terms for the material transfer agreement. And, if the terms of the deal become more flexible, as well as available before publication, perhaps the Human Genome Project will withdraw its paper to Nature and submit it to Science for back-to-back publication in early February.

Such a series of events, while unlikely, could herald a new era of public-private collaboration – and the White House wouldn’t even have to get involved.

What do you think will happen? Please send comments to [email protected] .

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