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PubMed Central: The 'Mildly Destabilizing' Compromise

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PubMed Central has become a critical component of the scientific research landscape, but 10 years ago it was just a gleam in Harold Varmus's eye. Originally conceived as E-Biomed, the vision was far more broad-reaching than what eventually became PubMed. "The original idea for PubMed Central was probably too radical," Varmus says. "I probably went too far initially."

'Too far' was a scheme for a completely new system where articles could be submitted to a central database prior to publication so that scientists could get earlier access to fresh research. Their apparent replacement put publishers in an uproar, and they mounted what Varmus remembers as "massive resistance" to the concept. In the spirit of not letting the perfect be the enemy of the good, Varmus's vision for E-Biomed was pared back to what would eventually become PubMed Central, which allowed but did not require publishers to deposit papers. Michael Eisen says while the database began as a compromise, it served a valuable purpose of being "mildly destabilizing" to the existing culture.

Today, more than 400 journals contribute to PubMed — a success that feeds information about some 650,000 articles daily to users. Still, many of those articles are not full text, and their use for large-scale analysis is limited. A few years ago, the US Congress called for making NIH-funded articles available in PubMed; again, resistance from publishers led to the policy being voluntary rather than mandatory. But that led to an abysmal participation rate of about 5 percent, says David Lipman, director of the National Center for Biotechnology Information at NIH. This year, Congress changed the policy to require scientists to deposit NIH-funded papers in PubMed within 12 months of publication. Similar policies have been implemented in the UK and elsewhere, some with shorter time frames for submission. There are hopes that NIH will move to a six-month policy to get research out there faster.

But the battles continue, and there's a bill in Congress now attempting to overturn the public access policy. In September, 33 Nobel laureates signed a letter supporting the access policy and opposing the bill. "The scientific literature is our communal heritage," they wrote. "The NIH came through with an enlightened policy that serves the best interest of science, the scientists who practice it, the students who read about it, and the taxpayers who pay for it."

Open access fan Peter Suber says the bill is "a sign that publishers are not giving up. … The challenge is to get them to a point where they will choose to adapt rather than fight."

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