March 4, 1997
Building the World's Largest Scientific Database
By BRUNO GIUSSANI
MSTERDAM -- Confronted with rising pressure on profit margins, increasing printing and distribution costs and growing enthusiasm among physicians and other scientists for the Internet as an information resource, Reed Elsevier
, the Anglo-Dutch publishing group, came to realize it had "almost no alternative," says Karen Hunter.
"We want to have our journals on the desktop of our readers and get our information to more people," added Hunter, Elsevier's Vice President for Strategic Planning.
While other scientific publishers begin to re-think their strategies to include the Internet, Reed-Elsevier's move is likely to be regarded as a turning point: Later this month the company is starting the operational testing of ScienceDirect, its new online venture, which will eventually become the world's largest scientific database.
The aim is to make the full text of all 1,200 Elsevier science journals available on the World Wide Web this year. "We'll go live by July 1st with about 350 biomedical journals, then add the other titles throughout the year," Hunter explained.
The world's biggest publisher of scientific journals -- including such respected titles as "The Lancet" -- Elsevier is inviting rival publishers to join ScienceDirect on a commercial basis.
Discussion are already under way. Hunter won't quote any names, but at the company's Amsterdam headquarters the likes of McGraw-Hill and Times Mirror are being mentioned as possible partners. "It's a question of critical mass. If we can get the big journals, the others will follow."
"Partners will keep complete control over their own content included in the database, and set their own prices," Hunter added.
The plan may sound familiar to users of another online service, the Lexis-Nexis legal and current-affairs database. This is hardly a coincidence: Lexis, based in Dayton, Ohio, is owned by Reed-Elsevier and is in charge of developing the technological infrastructure for ScienceDirect.
ScienceDirect will be accessible through standard Web browsers. The site's location will be at www.sciencedirect.com. Subscribers to the paper journals will get their password for a premium fee of "about 10 to 15 percent of the price," explained Hunter, but electronic-only subscriptions will also be available.
"You can search across the whole database, including the much larger bibliographic layer, and can purchase articles outside of your subscription for transaction-based charges," Hunter added.
ScienceDirect is likely to fuel the controversy about the acceptance of the Internet as a venue for publication of original scientific works.
Later versions will also include news alerts and customized features based on a user's profile or tailored to a specific scientific group, as well as video and audio files, larger data sets and discussion areas.
The company will invest about $25 million in the project over the next three years.
Although basically built around the content of the printed journals, ScienceDirect is likely to fuel the controversy about the acceptance of the Internet as a venue for publication of original scientific works. This is a highly sensitive issue going directly to the core of the scientific validation process.
"Until now, publishers and editors of scientific journals tended to consider their information as unflawed and the Internet's as rubbish," said Mark Selby, the executive director of the Health on the Net Foundation, a nonprofit organization based in Geneva.
This position was best summarized by The New England Journal of Medicine's editor-in-chief, Jerome Kassirer, and executive editor, Marcia Angell. "Direct electronic publishing of scientific studies threatens to undermine time-tested traditions that help to ensure the quality of the medical literature," they wrote in a famous June 1995 editorial announcing that material previously released on the Internet would not be accepted for publication by the Journal.
"Electronic communication is likely to become critically important in medicine and it behooves physicians to become competent in using it," they added. At present, though, "the Internet seems to promote medical rumors more than dispassionate scholarship."
The major concern with material published on the Internet was "that it had not undergone peer review, and that it is therefore of unchecked importance," explained Mark Davies, an anesthetist at the Royal Liverpool University Hospital who -- together with another doctor -- surveyed 19 journals of interest to his specialty.
"Seven of them would not publish data previously released online," Davies said. One editor went so far as to say that such information was "scientifically worthless."
Peer-review is the process of having scientific papers read and evaluated by selected experts who are asked to point out flaws or biases that could undermine their scientific validity. After the review, articles may be revised accordingly, or never published. Kassirer and Angell wrote: "The reviewers are an investigator's peers; they cannot be replaced by multiple unspecified users of the Internet."
"Unfortunately, there aren't a lot of other ways to validate the results of scientific research," said Bertrand Kiefer, the editor of the Swiss medical journal Médecine & Hygiène.
Yet the peer-review system itself is flawed, he said. "It is based on standard schemes of presentation -- abstract, methodology, development, results, discussion -- where some unorthodox yet innovative research cannot fit into," Kiefer added.
The system is also criticized for its slowness. "Six to twelve months can go between the submission of an article to and its publication by a prestigious journal," Selby said. And it is assailed for its US-centrism: "All the major publications are American, and it is much harder for a European specialist to get published than for, say, a Bostonian who lives and works a few blocks away from The New England Journal's offices," Kiefer stated.
On top of that criticism, he said there is the bias from competitors: "Very often it is a competitor who reviews a manuscript," Kiefer said. Although editors are very careful in selecting reviewers, still "it could happen that they reject the work but then use concepts and ideas from it in their own articles.
Some have suggested the Internet could help to implement an open and truly international process in which anyone could comment on any paper. "One may argue that the Internet represents the best way to be peer-reviewed: By the whole scientific community instead of a limited committee," Davies said.
Don Lindberg, the director of the National Library of Medicine in Bethesda, Md., said that "democratic" position doesn't get a lot of support among publishers who've been "making a fortune with not much effort by protecting their monopoly." The National Library of Medicine has its own online database, MEDLINE, but it features only bibliographic citations and author abstracts from other publications.
The only domain of science where such an open process has been implemented is high-energy physics. "That field has accelerated so much in the last decade, in part because research results have been made available quickly in electronic form, getting fast feedback and stimulating new research which would otherwise not have occurred," said Edward Valauskas.
As the editor of First Monday, one of the first peer-reviewed journals on the Internet (there is no paper version) and about the Internet, Valauskas is trying to get the best of both worlds.
First Monday appears on the Web on (no surprise) the first Monday of every month and is also delivered to subscribers as an electronic mail. It is the online experimental title of Munksgaard, a Danish company based in Copenhagen that publishes about 70 scientific journals.
Valauskas has spent several months gathering an international high-level editorial group -- including Esther Dyson and Vint Cerf -- to review and check the papers, but he's able to get them edited and published "within a few weeks" now.
He plans to "open up the articles to more scrutiny by the readers," by creating a balanced formula where the original paper is presented with its criticism and the author's response. "We'll try to develop a dialog with our readers without losing the quality standards that only a review by experts can offer."
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