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The real stakes of virtual publishing: The transformation of E-Biomed into PubMed central



In May 1999, National Institutes of Health (NIH) Director Harold Varmus proposed an electronic repository for biomedical research literature server called “E-biomed.” E-biomed reflected the visions of scholarly electronic publishing advocates: It would be fully searchable, be free to readers, and contain full-text versions of both preprint and postpublication biomedical research articles. However, within 4 months, the E-biomed proposal was radically transformed: The preprint section was eliminated, delays were instituted between article publication and posting to the archive, and the name was changed to “PubMed Central.” This case study examines the remarkable transformation of the E-biomed proposal to PubMed Central by analyzing comments about the proposal that were posted to an online E-biomed forum created by the NIH, and discussions that took place in other face-to-face forums where E-biomed deliberations took place. We find that the transformation of the E-biomed proposal into PubMed Central was the result of highly visible and highly influential position statements made by scientific societies against the proposal. The literature about scholarly electronic publishing usually emphasizes a binary conflict between (trade) publishers and scholars/scientists. We conclude that: (1) scientific societies and the individual scientists they represent do not always have identical interests in regard to scientific e-publishing; (2) stakeholder politics and personal interests reign supreme in e-publishing debates, even in a supposedly status-free online forum; and (3) multiple communication forums must be considered in examinations of e-publishing deliberations.

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