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image European Research News Centre > Research and Society > Web Utopia?
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image image image Date published: 16/10/02
  image Web Utopia?
RTD info special "Talking Science"
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  As a means of breaking free from the traditional path to scientific publication through accrediting by peer review, many researchers want to see the immediate publication of scientific information on the Internet, free of charge and available to all. The initiatives are increasing, provoking the start of a debate with previously uncompromising publishers.
   
     
   

Over the past decade the Internet has been the battlefield for the dissemination of basic scientific knowledge - from which any popularisation of science is ultimately derived. Articles written by and for researchers are published by specialised journals, but only after the process of peer review. Stevan Harnad, professor of cognitive sciences at Southampton University's Faculty of Psychology in the United Kingdom, estimates that 'there are currently at least 20 000 journals with reading committees in every discipline, publishing more than 2 million articles a year'. No academic library, however rich, can acquire and archive such a mass of information. Scientists therefore have unequal and always partial access to what must be the basis for their work. The problem is particularly acute in the developing countries (see box). There is also, of course, the matter of the general public and science communicators.

Success in physics
In response, recent years have brought a series of initiatives based on Internet technology with the aim of providing 'free, universal and immediate access to scientific information' for all, to quote Frank Laloë, physicist at the Ecole normale supérieure in Paris. In 1994, for example, Paul Ginsparg, a physicist employed at the Los Alamos national laboratory in the United States, launched a free server named Arvix, to which physicists send their articles, sometimes even before they are published in a science journal. It was an immediate success. 'Arvix now contains about 150 000 articles and is consulted 120 000 times a day', says Frank Laloë who heads the Centre pour la communication scientifique directe (CCSD), inspired by Arvix, and set up in 2000 in Villeurbanne, France. 'We want to generalise and internationalise Paul Ginsparg's idea, and are working on the long-term conservation of archives which will not be easy given the inevitable changes in technology', he explains.

Bio bargaining
In the field of life sciences, it was Harold Varmus, director of the US National Institutes of Health, who got the ball rolling in 1999. His idea was for a website providing not just articles already published in biomedical journals, but also texts submitted directly by researchers, the site having its own reading committee. Launched in 2000 with the support of the very popular PubMed/Medline service, PubMed Central provides free access to the contents of several dozen journals. However, the most prestigious among them are refusing to co-operate. Frank Laloë encountered no such resistance in the field of physics, however, where he believes that 'publishers are onlookers and do not participate a great deal. Ultimately, this kind of base will be a useful tool for them too.'

Last year, US biologists launched the idea of a single computer base making available free of charge to everyone all scientific and medical literature six months after publication. The Public Library of Science campaign to boycott journals which refuse to co-operate collected the signatures of over 30 000 scientists worldwide. The initiators set up a non-profit-making organisation with the plan to publish electronic journals free of charge, although this has yet to produce a concrete result. The debate resurfaced again – less confrontational this time – in December 2001 in Budapest. The Initiative for open access to research, backed by the foundation set up by the billionaire Georges Soros, wants to create archives open to all, including the 'simply curious', and to encourage researchers to place their articles on the servers of their own institutions. A virtual global base would be created by adopting joint indexing standards and developing search engines.

Traditional publishers are now beginning to pay attention to such initiatives, as witnessed by the electronic forums opened by the two most prestigious general science journals, Science in the United States and Nature in the United Kingdom. 'Changes to the system of academic publishing are inevitable and necessary,' admits Declan Butler, Europe correspondent with Nature and organiser of the forum. He believes that 'all those involved in scientific information are now living in a phase of experimentation'.


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Internet sites

Arvix:
http://www.arxiv.org/

CCSD:
http://ccsd.cnrs.fr/

PubMed Central:
http://www.pubmedcentral.nih.gov/

Public Library of Science:
http://www.publiclibraryofscience.org/

Initiative for open access to research:
http://www.soros.org/openaccess/

Nature
http://www.nature.com/nature/
debates/e-access/index.html

Science
http://www.sciencemag.org/cgi/eletters/
291/5512/2318b

American Scientist
http://amsci-forum.amsci.org/archives/
september98-forum.html

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Information for developing countries

'Those who could benefit most from science and technology are also those with the least access to information on these subjects.' That is the view of the organisers of SciDev.Net (http://www.scidev.
net/
), a website launched in December 2001 and financed by the Department for International Development (DFID – UK), the Research Centre for International Development (CR - Canada) and the Swedish Agency for International Development Co-operation (ASDI). The site is run by David Dickson who used to work for the British magazine Nature, and presents dossiers combining news and more in-depth information on subjects 'at the science/technology/sustainable development interface'.

While it is no doubt essential to report on such subjects, isn’t the priority to provide access to basic scientific information for researchers and engineers in these countries, something they are prevented from doing by the high cost of subscribing to 'primary' journals? This is one of the arguments put forward by scientists who have been calling for several years now for free and universal access to fundamental articles. The same thinking is behind the launch, by the UN Secretary General in September 2000, of the Health InterNetwork initiative (http://www.healthinternetwork.org/), with the aim of providing equal access to health information. It is managed by the World Health Organisation and supported by a group of international organisations, NGOs and private foundations. The Internet portal started up in 2002, placing on-line and free of charge the content of more than 2 000 medical journals, databases, information systems and other tools, for use by universities, medical schools, research centres and other public institutions in some 70 developing countries. The initiative also aims to establish or improve Internet access for public or private non-profit-making organisations in these countries.

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