Examination of Witnesses (Questions 200
MONDAY 8 MARCH 2004
HAROLD E VARMUS
Q200 Dr Iddon: Considering that,
I should like to ask you how successful your particular service
has been. How widely known is it? What other new ideas could you
give the inquiry which are related to the open access angle we
are discussing now?
Dr Goddard: Our effort is very
new. We are producing software which will help scientists to organise
their data and thereby make it easy for them to publish it on
the web and put it into databases which will integrate across
labs and consortia of labs and indeed whole communities. It is
just in its first version and we take it out to scientific labs
and people are very keen on it. They see the possibilities for
using it to share information within collaborations. It is too
early to say that we have any substantial evidence that it is
going to increase productivity, but the example to look at is
the genomic project where scientists did contribute their data
to a communitywide database and as a result we have entire industries
and we transformed biomedical science completely. That is the
context of where our effort is at right now. In terms of ideas
for the committee and recommendations which could be made, the
key difference here in dealing with data is that we do not have
an existing model where everybody puts their data behind some
commercial database and you have to pay to access it. The existing
model is in fact open access. In some sense, great, there should
be no problem. But in fact there is a problem, because scientists
do not have a culture and they do not have the incentives, either
financial or in terms of career, to make their data accessible.
It takes some work to organise data so that other people can use
it effectively and there is not much incentive at the moment.
Financial provision needs to be made in research grants, just
as for publishing the writing. Financial provision needs to be
made for the cost of doing this data organising, which should
be very low given the current electronic technology. There also
needs to be a move towards a recognition that this is an important
thing to do. In fact the Medical Research Council and the other
research councils are starting to move in this direction. The
Medical Research Council has a policy, which is not being completely
implemented at the moment, of people publishing their data. Those
are the kinds of things which need to get done.
Q201 Dr Iddon: I hope that you are
all going to persuade particularly chemists to scan in their spectral
data, the actual spectrum rather than the particular peaks, so
that we can actually see them and print them off. That would be
Mr Tracz: There is an important
issue here which is a very good example of the issue of data and
something which needs to be happening, something for which there
is a real role for the Committee and for government and that is
the situation with clinical trials and the data accumulated behind
clinical trials and particularly the situation which happens currently
with the publicly funded clinical trials which are happening in
England with English citizens participating in them and which
are either not published at all or published in places which are
inaccessible. We have made a submission here giving some studies
which are inaccessible. It is a real issue for people working
in England, not only patients but doctors as well, where some
push from above would be helpful and is really needed to make
sure that clinical trials are published, even when they have negative
results. We have created a special vehicle
for it. We have discussed it with NIH, NHS, with other groups.
They need to publish clinical trials in a new way by including
the data, as much data as is practical, as part of the publication.
It is something which can be recommended and which can be done.
It is now practical and possible to do and will bring great real
benefits to medical practice.
Q202 Chairman: Reed Elsevier claims
that a government mandate for open access would be against the
UK's financial interests because the UK publishes more than it
reads. I will not go on because you will know the issue. What
would be the advantages to the UK of switching to a pay-to-publish
from a pay-to-read policy?
Dr Varmus: It may in fact be the
case that the proportion of the total worldwide publishing effort
which the UK supports might go up slightly, but the overall costs
would go down. More importantly, the utility of the information
would go up and the access your citizens would have to that information
would increase enormously. I assume that you all feel the moral
imperative of ensuring that everyone in this country who has curiosity
about this information should have access to it, especially when
government pays for it and, as exemplified by the power of sharing
information on the genome project, you have interest in seeing
that scientific information be maximally exploited to take the
next step in pursuit of discovery.
Mr Tracz: To go back to the important
and key issue. The key issue here is that often access is essential
to science and of benefit to society in a whole number of ways;
simply knowing more and everything being easy to know. There is
also a financial argument here. One is that we are open access
publishers and currently the biggest in the world, which might
be something useful to have, but, more importantly, open access
encourages other industries. The genome project really showed
the variety of commercial organisations which grew up from it
by exploiting, analysing, reporting and providing services. Information
in the open encourages activity and encourages things which will
be beneficial to the UK, just like it is beneficial everywhere
Q203 Chairman: Last week we had oral
evidence which suggestedit was not put as crudely as thisthat
the public were too ignorant to understand all the information
in scientific journals. I remember it being indicated and said.
Are you fighting the right battle to get everyone access? Harold,
I can hear your answer now.
Dr Varmus: We have a tremendous
amount of support from the non-scientific communities, especially
in the States where the advocacy groups are particularly strong.
They want information. I notice it was mentioned last week that
doctors do not want to hear from patients who are informed. First
of all, patients are going to get informed; right now they can
try to get informed by looking at the junk on the internet. We
want to put the best that biomedical research offers on the internet
so that patients read information which is solid. We want physicians
who are not associated with major medical funders, who are working
in a farm town in Idaho, to be able to look up information which
has been made available through publicly funded research and see
the answers. We want, as emblazoned on the front of the British
Museum and stated by the librarian of the British Museum in 1836,
every young poor student to be able to satisfy his learned curiosity
just as a rich person does. These are themes which ring very strong
in the States.
Mr Tracz: The belief is strong
here too. We believe it.
Q204 Chairman: Two quick ones just
to finish up. There may be disparities in different countries
between publishing policies. How does open access handle that
situation? Pay-to-publish or pay-to-read; it might be different.
How would you handle that?
Dr Varmus: I am not sure what
you mean by differences.
Q205 Chairman: Different countries
may have different policies about publishing articles and so on.
I could imagine the French might have one way of doing it in their
journals; we might have another and India and China and so on.
How would open access feed into that?
Dr Varmus: It seems to me that
the one place we could run into difficulty would be if a country
said you cannot use research funds of any kind to publish. We
have not encountered that as yet. I think countries are going
to recognise that with the success of open access publishing this
is the way to pursue it. There are going to be costs, the costs
are going to be lower overall, and the impact of findings much
grander on the future of science. So far we have been very gratified.
The movement is in its early phases, and we are already getting
very strong testimonials from national funding agencies in Germany,
France, England, US and many other places. Aside from the concern
about ensuring that even the poorer scientists in the poorest
countries are able to publish in open access journals, once that
is dealt with, that is the only thing which is of concern.
Q206 Chairman: Do you think the American
Government would allow the Cubans to publish in proceedings the
National Academy of Science has held?
Dr Varmus: The Academy would certainly
welcome the articles.
Q207 Chairman: That was not the question
and you know it was not the question.
Dr Varmus: I know. We are fighting
the battle. I have been to Cuba myself and we are trying to fight
Q208 Dr Iddon: Anybody from a learned
society should hang on to their seat now. Do you think that the
way publications are developing will be the death knell of learned
Dr Varmus: I certainly hope not.
You heard from some societies earlier. My own concern about the
transition is most heavily focused on the fate of societies. Some
of the members here made crucial points about the need for adaptation
to change the environment of these societies. There are societies
which function very well without revenues from their journals.
The societies are guilds. They are there to serve the constituents
of the societies. Those constituents want open access publication.
Societies need to survive, but they will need to do so by adjusting
their business plan. It is obviously convenient not to change
a society business plan which is working, but the fact is that
if they want to serve their constituencies in the best possible
way they may have to charge the membership more for their meetings,
or maybe there are too many societies. I do not know. It is important
that these very valuable journals, which societies publish, undergo
changes within the context of the entire society business plan
so that they can continue to do their good work, but not deny
their members the advantages of open access publishing.
Q209 Chairman: May I bring it to
an end now by saying thank you very much to all three of you,
we are much better informed now than we were about the thinking
behind open access, and to you, Howard Varmus, for coming from
the States to help us. It has been a great pleasure to hear you
and we look forward to seeing you many times again over here.
Good luck in the projects you are developing over there.
Dr Varmus: It has been a pleasure
for me to participate in this high-minded conversation. I appreciate
Chairman: Thank you very much.
4 Note by the witness: Current Controlled Trials
Ltd., part of BioMed Central Back