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Magazines > Searcher > November/December 2004
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Vol. 12 No. 10 — Nov/Dec 2004
SEARCHER'S VOICE
Only Libraries, Only Librarians
by Barbara Quint
Editor, Searcher Magazine

In February 1995, I published a "Searcher's Voice" column called "Battle Plan." It has the unique distinction of being the only editorial I ever re-issued (as a March 1998 sidebar to an article on federal government information policy by Stephanie Ardito). The editorial advocated moving scientific communication and publication to the Web and enumerated the reasons. The suggestions posited for this effort in an almost pre-Web era would have involved extensive effort. Who did I suggest should assume the leadership in attempting this coup? The National Library of Medicine and its parent, the National Institutes of Health. According to my genius plan, the NLM would build a "sound working system for stabilized Internet research dissemination. The system should solve all major problems in archiving, filtering, and access...." and provide a model with "enough flexibility to apply to other areas of scholarship outside medical research."

Hmm. Sounds a lot like PubMed Central [http://www.pubmedcentral.nih.gov], don't you think?

Once the NLM had created this ideal system, I recommended it turn loose the big gun and get the NIH to "stipulate in its grants that publication support funds will be available ONLY for the new electronic publishing. Authors could still contribute articles to scholarly print journals, but first research publication must go through NIH-certified Internet releases (NIRs). Any print source publications should carry citations referring readers to access routes for the initial Internet releases and any archived discussion threads and filtering evaluations connected."

Well, it doesn't look exactly how I thought it would, but, with some shifting and re-alignment, this too has now come to pass. The National Institutes of Health have changed the language in its grants and contracts procedures to mandate that all NIH-funded research must become public access with PubMed Central 6 months after publication in a respectable medical journal. (For more details, see the Newsbreak, "NIH Requires Open Access for Its Funded Medical Research," http://www.infotoday.com/newsbreaks/nb040913-1.shtml; for more speculation on the future of the initiative and its impact, read the "Up Front with Barbara Quint" column in Information Today's October issue.)

Now what? One suggestion I made in that original battle plan did not come to pass. I had hoped that what we now call the PubMed Central effort would have been a joint effort with the Medical Library Association (MLA). Although the NLM does have amicable relations with other medical libraries, there is no OCLC-style integrated document delivery system in place. MLA does not play a co-designer role in the NLM's work.

"So what?" you may ask. "The job still got done. The world is changed forever. The public has its access to the research it has funded." True. But there is danger ahead. I hear the sound of white water rapids. To some extent, the NIH was prodded into this step and the prodding came from a congressional appropriations committee. In the course of building support for the initiative, a group emerged called the Alliance for Taxpayer Access (ATA) [http://www.taxpayeraccess.org], a group comprised of library organizations, patient advocacy groups, and award-winning medical researchers. I interviewed Rick Johnson of the Association of Research Libraries' SPARC effort and ATA's spokesperson. He commented that when they spoke with congressional representatives — both parties — the general response to the idea of insuring government-funded research was available on the open Web was, "You mean it isn't? Why not?"

If Congress were to wave its magic wand and mandate open access across the federal research effort (assuredly exempting the Defense Department and the intelligence community), it could accelerate the open access movement overnight. But are we ready? The NIH model works so well because NLM's librarians and their staff have worked to handle the load in an ideal manner. Though some major federal R&D funding agencies have strong information support operations in place, e.g., the Department of Energy's Office of Scientific and Technical Information (OSTI), many do not. For example, one of the biggest funders with the broadest range of disciplinary coverage and influence is the National Science Foundation (NSF). As far as I know, NSF has little or no centralized information service at all. I suspect that if NSF went "open access," it would rely on the self-archiving model backed by many authors.

While I applaud any form of open access support, including author collections stored in institutional repositories, this is simply too casual and too unstable a system upon which to place the burden of archiving scientific communication itself. Self-archive advocates often make it seem as if one must choose between their approach or centralized archiving. Au contraire. Using both would offer the redundancy essential to insure archival security and unbroken access. In time, I think the stability — more permanent URLs, more skillful dealing with "versioning" problems, integrated access to supporting linkages, etc. — would lead the centralized archive to attract more users, but it still wouldn't prevent self-archivers from creating their own collections.

The billions of dollars poured into federal research alone — not to mention all the other value factors involved in research and development efforts, both federal and nonfederal — must mandate that insuring the archiving and accessing of that research is a task requiring information professionals. We should not require every scientist to be a Webmaster or even to have warm personal relations with one. If institutional repositories become a major source of full-text scientific reportage, then those repositories must be run by librarians as part of library networks.

Our job as information professionals now is to step up to this task, to demand its performance as our right and our duty, to show the world that, though we may have missed building Google (AHEM), we will not miss providing the key services to guarantee the archiving and accessing of library-quality data on the Web. After all, it's not like we can't afford it. Ironically, scholarly publishers have given us the resources to do the job from their years of picking the dimes off a dead budget's eyes. Library budgets are large enough now to absorb the cost of the switch to a significantly cheaper delivery system. The transition will cost more, but the outcome will cost a lot less. We need to resolve today to make the moves that get us into position, to study the problems arising from new open access routes, to grapple with those problems without waiting for vendors to handle them for us.

Here's a sample problem. The NLM system for NIH research output still relies heavily on the continuance of the current print publication system. In fact, for inclusion as an open access contribution, an article must have been accepted in a journal covered by one or more of seven major life science indexing and abstracting services. If STM publishers actually do start to close down less-revenue-producing publications, the independent quality control provided by editors and peer reviewers from those discontinued publications will have to be replaced. We should start looking at alternative models for independent peer review. Fortunately, this should not cost too much either, since STM publishers have never paid more than chump change for the services that insure the quality of their publications. Innovative prestige devices should suffice.

Does it sound like I'm expecting librarians to assume the duties of publishers? Maybe. And why not? When a publisher licenses a digital archive to a library, doesn't the publisher take over the role of the library? The only difference is that if the publisher goes bankrupt or just decides to close down one line of their business, the library could end up with nothing for all its years of subscription payments.

Storing the work of the human mind so it can be found forever by other human minds is our job as information professionals. Let's get to work. NOW!

...bq


Barbara Quint's e-mail address is bquint@mindspring.com.
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