From the moment it was conceived, PubMed Central was controversial, and it has remained controversial ever since. The brainchild of Harold Varmus — the then director of the US National Institutes of Health (NIH) — the idea for PubMed Central was first mooted in 1999, but originally called E-BIOMED.
When Varmus published his initial proposal, publishers quickly concluded that it posed a serious threat to their livelihoods. Specifically, they were convinced that, if E-BIOMED went ahead, the US government would become a publisher, and they would be disintermediated as a result. So they launched a firestorm of protest.
Their protest delivered results. When the service was launched eight months later it had been re-branded as PubMed Central, and was a pale shadow of the revolutionary new “electronic publications” system that Varmus had envisioned. Significantly, Varmus had had to concede that publishers would have final say on whether the papers they published were put into PubMed Central — and most publishers chose not to participate.
Varmus later conceded that he had been naïve not to have anticipated the furore. “I must have known that I was not going to be at NIH for much longer,” he joked to New Scientist in 2003, “because this caused a tremendous political argument: what the hell was I trying to do to destroy the publication industry.”
Nevertheless, it was soon apparent that NIH did not intend to give up on its dream of having a large free full-text archive of biomedical and life science papers, along the lines of the physics preprint server arXiv. This resolve was only strengthened when, two years later, the Open Access (OA) movement came into being. The tide of history, it seemed, was flowing in NIH’s direction.
In 2004, therefore, Varmus’ successor at the NIH Elias Zerhouni published a draft policy entitled “Enhanced Public Access to NIH Research Information. The aim was to persuade researchers to post their papers in PubMed Central.
One again, publishers objected. In a 2004 editorial penned in the Chemical & Engineering News, for instance, C&N Editor-in-Chief Rudy Baum complained, “Zerhouni’s action is the opening salvo in the open-access movement's unstated, but clearly evident, goal of placing responsibility for the entire scientific enterprise in the federal government's hand. Open access, in fact, equates with socialized science.”
For publishers the nightmare scenario was that research funders would gradually squeeze them out of the process of disseminating research. After all, the papers published in scholarly journals are written by researchers, and the peer review process is conducted by researchers — at no charge to publishers. In the age of the Internet, some were beginning to conclude, the need for publishers was beginning to look moot. At the very least, they reasoned, the role that publishers play could be reduced in an online world. This would help ease the burden on the public purse, which many believed was being gouged by publishers charging excessive journal prices.
But this time publisher opposition did not succeed. In May 2005 the NIH introduced its Public Access Policy. While this was initially only a request that researchers post NIH-funded papers in PubMed Central, it was later upgraded to a demand, and today researchers are required “to submit all final peer-reviewed journal manuscripts that arise from NIH funds to the digital archive PubMed Central upon acceptance for publication.”
Publishers continued to mutter about the Public Access Policy, but they had to learn to live with it. And faced with growing calls for research papers to be made freely available, many also began to experiment with OA.
But last year their fears of being disintermediated were reignited, when three large research funders — the Wellcome Trust, the Howard Hughes Medical Institute (HHMI) and the Max-Planck Society — announced plans to launch their own OA journal, eLife.
Since the funders indicated that they would not initially be charging a publication fee, publishers complained that it was anti-competitive. Writing on the Nature newsblog on the day of the announcement, for instance, Nature’s Declan Butler commented, “[F]rom what we know so far from today’s press conference, this new journal appears to offer few tangible novel innovations and may indeed disrupt the thriving open access environment. Its decision not to charge author fees, at least in the journal’s short and medium term, in fact could risk setting back the cause of open-access publishing by undermining — through what might be considered unfair competition — economically successful open access publishers”.
And when at the end of October, eLife announced that it had published its first few articles, critics were angered to see that the papers had been hosted not on the journal’s own website, but on PubMed Central.