Re: Medical journals are dead. Long live medical journals

From: Jim Till <till_at_OCI.UTORONTO.CA>
Date: Sat, 4 Mar 2000 09:48:41 -0500

On Fri, 3 Mar 2000, I wrote:

> I've also looked at several letters published in Science in 1966, including
> a very interesting series of evaluations of IEGs in Science 1966; 154:
> 332-336 (21 October)

Two of the four letters published in the 21 October 1966 issue of Science
were rather negative evaluations of the IEGs, and two were more positive.
Here are some excerpts from these letters (please note that the excerpts
have been taken out of context; I've chosen to give particular attention
to quotations that seem to be especially relevant to the issue of

"They [IEGs] are dangerous because a parallel publication system is being
set up" ... "which is seemingly out of the control of scientific bodies
such as editorial boards or societies" ...... "there is still some
usefulness left in parts of the original idea in setting up this system;
namely, that it be used solely to acquaint people in the field, by means
of short letters, of new findings and developments with regard to methods,
with regard to simple salient findings concerning single points and which
would not be suitable for a full paper, and with regard to comments and
criticisms of papers already published in the scientific press". (Philip
Siekevitz, Science 1966; vol 154, pages 332-334).

"... no refereeing process is provided for what is, in essence, a form of
publication; and the IEG places undue emphasis on priority" ... "Standards
of scholarship should be the dominant concern in any form of scientific
communication". (August H. Doermann and five others, page 334).

"The desire to impose censorship can take various forms" ... [There were]
"nine reasons which summarized the Immunologists' objections to IEG No. 5"
...... [about reason number 4, "The preprints may ultimately supersede
existing journals"]: "This process is commonly termed 'evolution' and the
struggle for existence leads to the survival of the fittest. The current
tendency is for journals to multiply rather than to disappear". (Thomas
H. Jukes, pages 334-335).

"It is significant that the success of the IEG concept in the biological
sciences has created great interest in setting up similar groups in the
physical sciences" ...... "The American Association of Immunologists
recently passed ... by a vote of 56 to 39, a resolution recommending that
IEG No. 5 be discontinued. The officers announced this in a letter to
Science and evaluated IEG's generally [see Science 153, 649 (1966)]" ...
"the letter contained many inaccuracies and unjustified assumptions" ...
"As chairmen of four of the IEG's, we feel that an answer to such
criticism, point by point, would assign more value to the letter than it
deserves. There may, indeed, be valid reasons for the dissatisfaction of
some immunologists with the management of IEG No. 5. But to proceed from
a specific complaint to an attack on IEG's generally, without detailed
knowledge of the relevant facts, is unwarranted". (D.E. Green and three
others, pages 335-336).

"The published form of the letter concerning Information Exchange Group
No. 5 (12 Aug.) failed to make it clear that this letter was transmitted
by Sheldon Dray in his official capacity of secretary-treasurer of the
American Association of Immunologists. The letter represents a report of
discussions at the annual AAI business meeting ... [it] was somewhat
shortened by the editors". (ED. [of Science], page 336).

I've also looked at the editorial about the IEGs by Philip H. Abelson in
Science 1966; 154: 727 (11 November). Excerpts: "Potential for further
growth in IEG membership is large" ...... "It is unlikely that NIH will
conduct this experiment [of an expanded IEG service]. Partly this is
because of tight budgets. Partly it will be a response to increasing
criticism of the IEG experiment (Science 12 August and 21 October)".

The letter by Eugene Confrey, announcing that support by NIH for the IEGs
would be discontinued, was published on 18 November (Science 1966; 154:

I was involved in some work in immunology in the 1960s (see, for example:
Kennedy JC, Till JE, Siminovitch L, McCulloch EA, The proliferative
capacity of antigen-sensitive precursors of hemolytic plaque-forming
cells. J Immunol 1966 Jun;96(6):973-80. PMID: 5913164, UI: 67004870).

I do recall being on the receiving end of preprints distributed by IEG No.
5. As noted in the letter by Philip Siekevitz (Science 1966; 154, page
333), the bulky preprints did pile up, mostly unread. (Of course, one
couldn't scan them online, search for key words by subject or author, file
and store them easily, nor do any of the other things that are now
feasible with online articles).

It appears that this initial controversial experience with a 'preprint
culture' may help to explain why an 'eprint culture' has been rather slow
to develop among biomedical scientists.

In his editorial in 1966, Abelson attributed the "explosive growth" of the
IEGs in part to a "mass protest against the inefficiency" of more
conventional routes of publication, and in part to a desire of some
biomedical scientists to try to "avoid a discipline essential to the
integrity of science". These same motivations seem to be playing major
roles in the current debates about eprints.

I continue to believe that some valuable lessons can be learned from the
IEG experiment. One might be that, when the words 'quality control' are
used, the crucial key word for some is 'quality', while for others, it's

--Jim Till
Received on Mon Jan 24 2000 - 19:17:43 GMT

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