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BMJ Biomedical Preprint Site Announced

News from the British Medical Journal and HighWire Press
See:  http://clinmed.netprints.org/home.dtl

Also, for the statement below:

DECEMBER 11, 1999

Netprints: the next phase in the evolution of biomedical publishing 
Will allow researchers to share their findings in full, for free, and fast

This week we launch clinmed.netprints.org, an electronic archive where
authors can post their research into clinical medicine and health before,
during, or after peer review by other agencies. Resulting from a
collaboration between the BMJ Publishing Group and Stanford University
Libraries, it will allow researchers to share their findings in full, for
free, and as soon as their studies are complete.

Articles will be screened for breaches of confidentiality and libel before
we post them. After posting authors may submit them to any peer reviewed
journal that will accept submissions that have appeared as electronic
preprints. The list of such journals extends far beyond those of the BMJ
Publishing Group and is growing daily (see box). Researchers who have
retained the right to post their research results after publication in a
peer reviewed journal can archive their articles here rather than on
possibly more ephemeral institutional or personal websites.

With at least 20 000 websites devoted to health and medicine why start
another one? Arguments for and against electronic preprints have been
rehearsed several times in the pages of this journal and on our
website.  In brief, we see electronic publication of a completed study
before peer review as analogous to the presentation of results at a
meeting, an important part of the scientific process. Not everybody can
travel to scientific meetings, but most researchers have access to the
world wide web. Often the eventual publication has benefited as much from
feedback received at meetings as it has from conventional peer review. We
will therefore be providing facilities for direct reader feedback
(familiar to anyone who has seen the rapid response feature on the BMJ's
website). In many ways the BMJ's new netprint server (covering both
electronic preprints and electronic reprints) is more evolutionary than
revolutionary because we have always regarded publication in the paper
journal as not the end but rather only part of the peer review process.
Every editor has seen published studies destroyed in the correspondence

The arrival of the world wide web has given us the chance to rethink the
trade offs that have traditionally been made in scientific publication.
Previously, we have accepted that the benefits of quality control have
outweighed its costs. These include the long delays between the completion
of research and its publication, the random scattering of articles on
similar topics among journals of varying accessibility, and the loss of
some articles (not necessarily the worst) from the system completely.
Meanwhile, the price charged for this value adding service is rising
faster than most customers can afford.

After three international congresses devoted to peer review its claims as
an efficient means of quality control are looking threadbare, while the
disadvantages of the current system are becoming more apparent. For
example, those attempting systematic reviews of all research on particular
topics often find that many studies are unreported or unlocatable. Yet
these results may be crucial, especially given the publication bias
against negative findings. Patient care depends on clinicians having easy
access to unbiased evidence, and researchers and funding agencies want to
avoid duplicating research. In these ways the BMJ's netprint server shares
the same aims as the calls from the Lancet and BMJ for all clinical trials
to be registered.

Opponents of free availability place a high value on peer review,
regardless of the contrary evidence. They argue that it efficiently
winnows out the wheat from the chaff and that articles not yet through the
mill of peer review may harm public health or even science itself. Yet
many unreviewed findings already find their way into the public arena with
the connivance of researchers and conference organisers, usually in an
uninterpretable form. Far better, we believe, for a study to appear in
full, with the opportunity for readers to assess its claims and append
their criticisms. We are alert to the danger that members of the public
may be misled by what they read on the website, but an explicit warning
appears on its opening screen and is repeated above every article.

A substantial proportion of researchersour intended audience seems in
favour of the concept. In a survey by Bioinformatics Inc two years ago 46%
of 1067 scientists and medical professionals rated the practice of
publishing electronic preprints as very or somewhat valuable. Four months
ago we took a straw poll of authors of research published in the New
England Journal of Medicine, the Lancet, and the BMJ to see whether our
target user group shared similar views. Although the response rate of 30%
was too low for firm conclusions, the results suggested that they did:
three times as many respondents were in favour of preprints as were
against, providing prior publication of them did not prejudice acceptance
by peer reviewed journals. With this proviso 24 of 43 respondents would
consider posting their articles on a preprint server.

Our proposal is not a covert attempt to do away with peer reviewed
articles or journals but offers instead another route to "publication"
with a different set of advantages and disadvantages. We can't know what
clinical researchersas authors and readers will choose until they have
been given the choice. In high energy physics a thriving electronic
preprint server coexists with traditional peer reviewed journals, where
most of the preprints are eventually published. The BMJ's hope is that
eventually the whole peer review process will be transformed from the
current black box to an entirely open process. The whole world will be
able to watch, perhaps helping to restore public confidence in science.
The modern world is suspicious of closed processes.

Other examples of preprint servers exist: the Lancet has one for research
into international health and for articles accepted by the journal for
peer review.  More are planned in clinical medicine and the basic life
sciences. We hope to share common standards of interoperability with other
servers, and we support the open archives initiative. The initiative's
ultimate aim is to allow readers to locate articles on different servers,
as if the articles were all in one virtual public library.

As the possibilities of the world wide web are being exploited, the old
style scientific journal is coming apart at the seams. Each function it
performed is being scrutinised, and how to deliver it is being rethought.
Netprints is just the latest example of this new tendency. We hope that
researchers will use clinmed. netprints.org and let us know how it could
be improved. It could take us one step closer to realising Tagore's vision
of untrammelled access to knowledge.

Tony Delamothe, web editor
BMJ, and editor, clinmed.netprints.org

Richard Smith, editor.  

Michael A Keller, university librarian and publisher.  
John Sack, associate publisher.  
Bill Witscher, associate director.  

HighWire Press, Stanford University, Stanford, CA 94305, USA