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April 27, 2009

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Google: The World's Medical Journal

A good anecdotal lead. Carolina Solis is a medical student who did research on parasitic infections caused by contaminated well water in rural Nicaragua.

Like many researchers, she plans to submit her findings for publication in a medical journal. What she discovered could benefit not just Nicaraguan communities but those anywhere that face similar problems. When she submits her paper, though, she says the doctors she worked with back in San Juan del Sur will probably never get a chance to read it.

“They were telling me their problems accessing these [journals]. It can be difficult for them to keep up with all the changes in medicine.”

Hey, Matt, if you want to sink your teeth into a medical policy issue that’s right up your alley, I think this is it.

There’s legislation:

Washington recently got involved. Squirreled away in the massive $410 billion spending package the president signed into law last month is an open access provision. It makes permanent a previous requirement that says the public should have access to taxpayer-funded research free of charge in an online archive called PubMed Central. Such funding comes largely from the National Institutes of Health, which doles out more than $29 billion in research grants per year. That money eventually turns into about 60,000 articles owned and published by various journals.

But Democrats are divided on the issue. In February, Rep. John Conyers, D-Mich., submitted a bill that would reverse open access. HR 801, the Fair Copyright in Research Works Act, would prohibit government agencies from automatically making that research free. Conyers argues such a policy would buck long-standing federal copyright law. Additionally, Conyers argues, journals use their subscription fees to fund peer review in which experts are solicited to weigh in on articles before they’re published. Though peer reviewers aren’t usually identified or paid, it still takes money to manage the process, which Conyers calls “critical.”

And cultural/generational change:

The pay-to-play model doesn’t jive with a generation of soon-to-be docs who “grew up Google,” with information no farther than a search button away. It’s a generation that never got lost in library stacks looking for an encyclopedia, or had to pay a penny for newspaper content. So it doesn’t see why something as important as medical research should be locked behind the paywalls of private journals.

Copyright issues are nothing new to a generation that watched the recording industry deal its beloved original music sharing service, Napster, a painful death in 2001. Last October, it watched Google settle a class-action lawsuit brought on by book publishers upset over its Book Search engine, which makes entire texts searchable. And just last week, a Swedish court sentenced four founders of the the Pirate Bay Web site to a year in prison over making copyrighted files available for illegal file sharing. And now the long-familiar copyright war is spilling over into medicine.

There’s even WikiDoc

And, the article doesn’t mention this, but I’ll contend there’s a role for journalism to play. Here’s a modest proposal: allow medical researchers to republish key findings of the research in newspapers, magazines, something with a different revenue structure, and then make it accessible to everyone. Not perfect, but a programmatic effort would do some good.

Speaking of which — what are the new big ideas on the health/medicine beat? This is such a huge issue — it feels like it should have its own section in the paper every day.

Posted April 27, 2009 at 9:28 | Comments (3) | Permasnark
File under: Journalism, Science, Snarkpolicy, Worldsnark


open access is great and I support it, but the there's considerable room for improvement in the process for getting papers into pubmed central.

Absolutely. I should add that "put everything on google" is incredibly complicated--not necessarily at all beneficial. It takes training to learn to navigate medical databases, for good reason: you don't want to just google "heart attack" and take the first answer that comes up.

Unrelated Simpsons flashback: "you've got... Leprosy!" :)

The author's a recent college grad and part-time researcher. I, too, am a young (full-time) researcher, very much in favor of open access, firmly on the copyleft, but I don't see a generation gap as the driving force here. The major architects, proponents, and beneficiaries of this movement are scientists my dad's age. When MIT went open-access, some faculty apparently called the move a form of collective bargaining with publishers - albeit with colossal positive externalities. And in my experience even senior researchers will email papers to anybody, copyright be damned. Sometimes I think that my generation's main contribution here is our lightning-fast web-fu and propensity to read everything on screens: why bother with a deadtree journal if it's more useful in searchable form anyway? I haven't picked up a physical copy for years.

Speaking of which, it seems to me that the semantic web, if it's at all functional, would be uniquely useful for the scientific & medical literature. There are so many facets to a paper, and the bit you're searching for can often be buried in an otherwise-unrelated study. As good as Pubmed and Google Scholar are, it's easy to find all your keywords in papers completely irrelevant to your search. Then again, a search engine that groks science as well as most scientists could easily take over the world.

Regarding Conyers's bill, it's in committee and as far as I can tell it isn't going anywhere.

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