Welcome to the Free Online Scholarship
August 23, 2001
Introducing the Guide to the FOS Movement
I'm very pleased to announce that I've finished the first draft of my Guide
to the FOS Movement. This is a guide to the terminology, acronyms,
initiatives, standards, technologies, and players in the movement to publish
scholarly literature on the internet and make it available to readers free of
Now that it's online, I can revise, enlarge, and update it, which will be
much easier than writing the present draft. I welcome your
suggestions. I have about 30 entries waiting to include, but don't
hesitate to report omissions. I also welcome corrections and comments of
The guide has many purposes. It should help you find background on
unexplained terms or names you encounter in research on any FOS-related
topic. For the same reason, it will allow me to use terms and names here
in the newsletter without explaining each one every time. Above all, it
should make it easier for specialists from one sector (e.g. research, libraries,
publishing) to understand the contributions to this movement made by specialists
from other sectors. This movement isn't only multi-disciplinary, encompassing
all the academic disciplines, but also multi-industrial, drawing on libraries
and universities and such varied economic sectors beyond the academy as
publishing, telecommunications, software engineering, philanthropy, and
government. It is also multi-national, building on the work of individuals and
organizations from around the world. Without special study one cannot appreciate
the contributions of all these players to the FOS movement. I hope the guide
brings recognition to the contributors and understanding to those hoping to see
the big picture.
Guide to the FOS Movement
The Ellen Roche story
Ellen Roche was a healthy 24 year old lab technician at the Johns Hopkins
(JH) Asthma Center. She volunteered to take part in an experiment to
understand the natural defenses of healthy people against asthma. Roche
was part of a group that inhaled hexamethonium, a drug which induced a mild
asthma attack. Physicians stood by in case of complications and to measure
how the subjects responded to the asthma attack. Within 24 hours of
inhaling the drug, Roche had lost one-third of her lung capacity. Within a
month she was dead.
The consent form she signed warned of coughing, dizziness, and tightness in
the chest, but not death. It called hexamethonium a "medication" although
its approval by the FDA (as a treatment for high blood pressure) had been
withdrawn in 1972.
Here's the FOS connection: Dr. Alkis Togias, the director of the
experiment, apparently limited his hexamethonium research to one contemporary
textbook and PubMed.
The use of hexamethonium in the 1950's to treat high blood pressure created
an evidentiary trail revealing some disturbing risks. Several articles
published in print journals during the 1950's showed that hexamethonium could
cause fatal lung inflammation. Unfortunately, PubMed's coverage starts in
the mid-1960's. When the FDA withdrew its approval of hexamethonium in
1972, it cited the drug's "substantial potential toxicity". Unfortunately,
PubMed covers medical research, not FDA rulings.
The JH internal investigation found literature on the dangers of
hexamethonium in Google and Yahoo. Medical librarians who subscribe to the
MedLib listserv found relevant information in online sources other than
At least one expert witness has already zeroed in on the sloppiness of the
research. Quoting Dr. Frederick Wolff, professor emeritus at the George
Washington School of Medicine: "This is just laziness. What happened
is not just an indictment of one researcher, but of a system in which people
don't bother to research the literature anymore."
Ellen Roche died on June 2, and the Roche family has apparently not yet
filed a lawsuit. However, JH still faced a serious sanction. On July
19 the federal Office for Human Research Protection (OHRP) suspended all JH
research on human subjects. This halted 2,400+ ongoing experiments with
15,000+ human subjects. The disruption was administratively chaotic,
devastating to research, and potentially grave for patients participating in
experiments who suddenly found their medication withheld. Perhaps for this
reason the OHRP lifted the suspension three days later, though with the
requirement that experiments meet new safeguards.
What does this case imply about PubMed and FOS generally in high-stakes
research? See the next item below for some comments.
Eva Perkins, Johns Hopkins' Tragedy: Could Librarians Have Prevented
Report of FDA investigation
Report of Johns Hopkins internal investigation
MedLib listserv postings on searching online for hexamethonium risks
In writing this report, I also relied on these stories from the Baltimore
[Thanks to Denise A. Troll for bringing this case to my
* Postscript. JH is not out of the woods yet on the ethics of
experimenting on human subjects. The Maryland Court of Appeals has just
ruled that JH researchers violated informed consent rules when they deliberately
exposed healthy children from low-income families to lead. The result was
a measurable increase in the level of lead in their blood. The experiment
was approved before the Roche case erupted, but the court ruling was delivered
only last week.
Dan Curry, State Court Denounces Johns Hopkins-Approved Study That Exposed
Children to Lead Dust
Maryland Court of Appeals decision (August 16, 2001)
Comments on the Ellen Roche story
PubMed is a premier example of FOS, a contender for FOS at its best.
So does the Ellen Roche case prove that FOS is inadequate, even hazardous?
How just is this interpretation? What are the lessons of this case for
FOS? Please post your thoughts to our discussion forum. Meantime,
let me exercise my privilege as editor and offer a first take on this.
We should be careful in drawing lessons from this case. It's not true
that limiting a search to *online* sources would hide the dangers of
hexamethonium. We know this because the medical librarians on the MedLib
listserv found the relevant information in online sources. Nor is it true
that limiting a search to *free online* sources (like PubMed) would hide the
dangers of hexamethonium. We know this because the JH internal
investigators turned up articles on these dangers from Google and Yahoo
searches. Today, free online sources may be a feeble subset of online
sources, which are in turn a feeble subset of published research. But
apparently even free online sources were adequate to ground good care in this
case, if diligently consulted. However, this does not vindicate FOS.
Even if free online sources turn out to be adequate in this case, there is
clearly a large number of other cases where it will not yet be
If there is a problem with free online sources here, it is that they are
not sufficiently connected (or in the industry jargon, "interoperable") with
other sources, so that Dr. Togias' search on PubMed did not bring up results
buried in other collections. As long as this is true, then researchers
will have an obligation, especially in high-stakes research, to run parallel
searches on multiple collections. In the meantime, architects of the free
online scholarship system of the future are already at work on metadata
standards that make interoperability and cross-archive searching commonplace and
transparent. Moreover, others are hard at work on the retroactive
digitization of selected bodies of print literature. In short, we're
already on the right track to make FOS nearly as adequate as the general body of
published literature, and more adequate insofar as electronic sources can
generate answers more quickly than print resources.
How can we answer the objection that the Roche case proves the inadequacy,
even the hazards, of free online scholarship? First I'd point out the
evidence (above) that free online sources contained the relevant information in
this case. Second, I'd admit that we are in a transition period in which
there is significantly less literature online than in print, and less free than
priced. The ratio of FOS to published literature (an approximate measure
of adequacy) changes from discipline to discipline and from day to day.
But we can't pretend that the corpus of FOS is as adequate as the corpus of all
published scholarship when, on the contrary, it's a mere subset. Third,
I'd admit that we are likely to be in this transition period for a long
time. Fourth, I'd urge researchers to draw the conclusion that relevant
information may exist without being online, let alone free and online.
When easy searches fail, we do not have a bona fide negative result from which
we can draw scientific conclusions. Instead we must spend the time and
calories to undertake a more arduous search. Fifth, I'd wonder out loud
whether there is a good scientist anywhere who didn't already know
Finally, I'd point out that part of the underlying problem here is that FOS
is compellingly attractive. It is only hazardous because it tempts busy
people to rely on it to the exclusion of other research methods. What
makes it tempting is not false advertising but spectacular convenience.
This is not a hazard of FOS, then, but of unresisted temptation.
Another variable here is that researchers often work under deadlines,
pressures, and expectations that jack up the temptation to take
short-cuts. The problem is still unresisted temptation. But we don't
have to conclude that Dr. Togias didn't know how to do good research. He
might have been too busy to use the research methods he knew were more reliable
and comprehensive. I doubt that many scientists would be willing to throw
the first stone here.
If FOS is spectacularly convenient, but not yet adequate, then it may be
hazardous to put before people who don't understand its inadequacy or whose will
has been weakened by various pressures. But the same is true of potato
chips and money. If the problem is that FOS is available for use before it
is adequate, then the real objection is to stepwise progress. Which is
better, to make FOS repositories available as they are ready, and let them grow
and interconnect in real time, or to hold them back until the network of such
repositories encompasses all published literature? Serious scientists
would be the first to object to the latter plan. Running a close second
would be people with debilitating medical conditions anxious for research
Let's admit that we're in a transition period. FOS is large and
growing, but still small and inadequate compared to the domain of extant
published literature. To misunderstand this is like believing that every
house can be reached by a superhighway. Some houses can't even be reached
by a paved road.
Let's also admit that PubMed doesn't pretend to be more than it is.
Its scope does not go back to the 1950's or extend to the rulings of federal
administrative agencies. What it does, it does very well, giving users
free access to a searchable medical bibliography with over 11 million citations
and abstracts. For 18 months, it has been supplemented by PubMed Central,
which provides free online access to a growing number of full-text
articles. If it appears to a researcher through a veil of illusion, the
illusion of sufficiency, then it is the researcher's illusion. The same is
true of a print library.
You've probably heard the joke about the person searching for a contact
lens on the sidewalk under a street light. "Did you lose your lens
here?" "No, but this is where the light is." Dr. Togias, and the JH
board which reviewed and approved his experiment, committed the Street Light
Fallacy. Once we admit that we're in a transition period, then we must
take the responsibility to avoid the Street Light Fallacy in our own research,
and teach our students to avoid it in theirs. FOS is growing toward
adequacy in every discipline, at different rates, but is probably not adequate
in any discipline today. We can advance this cause best by working to make
it more adequate without inviting others to presume its present adequacy.
Convenience and adequacy are independent variables. This is not
esoteric. It's a lesson we learned long ago from McDonald's.
FOS discussion forum
(Anyone may read; only subscribers may post; subscription is
* The first worm to infect PDF files has emerged. Called "Peachy", it is
carried by PDF files sent as email attachments, not (yet) by PDF files
downloaded from document archives. PDF is a common format for ebooks,
white papers, and other forms of online scholarship.
* Envisional is a British company in the anti-piracy business. As
part of its research it has discovered that more than 7,500 full-length
copyrighted books are available for free on the internet, without the permission
of the copyright holders. This could be true, but I'm not sure how
Envisional knows it. (I've put one of my copyrighted books online and was
never queried about my permission by researchers or software.) But if you
believe the claim, you might hire the company. See the next item,
* Envisional and Exelum have developed copyright enforcement
software. When rights holders set it to find their intellectual property
and sic it on the web, it searches for copies that may be unauthorized, notifies
the rights holder, and sends a "cease and desist" email to the site maintainer,
all automatically. I hope it's more intelligent than the spammers who
think I've expressed an interest in their product.
New on the web
* ChemWeb has launched the Chemistry Preprint Server (CPS). Not only
are the preprints online and free, each has an associated discussion
forum. CPS plans to be OAI-compliant within the next two months.
* Since March, the developers of eprint software (for creating
OAI-compliant archives) have been conducting a survey of users and
non-users. The preliminary results of the survey are now online.
(This link worked three days ago, but now directs users to a second link,
which is dead. I leave it as is for now, in case it is fixed before I can
publish a correction in an upcoming issue.)
* R2 Consulting has created a fascinating and useful dynamic map of ebook
business models. Each genus branches into many species, each in a
color-coded box. Click on a box and it moves to the center, pivoting the
rest of the map. Double-click on a box and the page to which it points
opens in a separate window. An enjoyable way to explore a landscape you
might have thought too dull to explore.
(Thanks for Sam Vaknin for bringing this to my attention.)
* The JISC Charging Working Group has posted its final report with
recommendations on charging for electronic information. This report covers
datasets; another working group is studying the charging policy for
* (This is old news that I didn't discover until now.) A free current
awareness service allows you to run searches on PubMed and GenBank, store them,
have them repeated daily, and see new search hits either on a custom-built web
page or by email. The service is called PubCrawler. This is the way
to do current awareness.
Share your thoughts
* The Library of Congress wants your comments on its draft action plan,
Bibliographic Control of Web Resources. The plan has six goals: "1
increased availability of standard records for Web resources; 2 enhanced record
display and access across multiple systems; 3 collaboration among metadata
standards communities for better bibliographic control of Web resources; 4
development of automated tools for harvesting and maintaining metadata; 5
provision of appropriate training for the Web environment; and 6 support of
research and development to enhance bibliographic control of Web
resources." The LOC will accept comments until September 1.
* The Text Encoding Initiative wants your comments on its draft version 4
of the Guidelines for Electronic Text Encoding and Interchange. It will
accept comments until mid-September.
Solicitation of comments
* The developers of the eprints software want your comments on an alpha
release of version 2, now online. The development team knows that this
version is unstable and isn't ready for bug reports yet, but would like feedback
on the interface and design.
In other publications
* In the July/August issue of the _Educause Review_, Michael Looney and
Mark Sheehan have a substantial primer on ebooks. It covers reading
technologies, usage limitations and security, dynamism (revisability), and the
usefulness of ebooks for teaching and learning.
* In the 2001 issue of _The Craft_, William Bostock contends that
electronic journals do not have weight or impact of print journals because of
concerns about their quality, visibility, and continuity. He argues that
all these concerns can be answered in time, and when they are fully answered the
electronic journal will be the premier vehicle of scholarly publication.
* Peter Haddad, Director of the Technical Services Branch of the National
Library of Australia, wonders whether global, digital knowledge is a blessing or
a threat to libraries. The answer, he argues, is up to libraries.
The paper he delivered at a July 23 conference in Brunei has now been posted to
If you plan to attend one of the following conferences, please share your
observations with us through our discussion forum.
* The Fundamentals of Digital Projects (Illinois Digitization
Urbana, Illinois, August 28 and September 20
Milan, September 3-7
* 5th European Conference on Research and Advanced Technology for Digital
Darmstadt, September 4-8
* DELOS Workshop on Interoperability in Digital Libraries
Darmstadt, September 8-9
* Experimental OAI Based Digital Library Systems
Darmstadt, September 8
* Preserving Online Content for Future Generations
Darmstadt, September 8
* International Autumn School on the Digital Library and E-publishing for
Physics, Astronomy and Mathematics
Geneva, September 9-14
* Digital Libraries: Advanced Methods and Technologies, Digital
Petrozavodsk, September 11-13
* Intellectual Property and Multimedia in the Digital Age: Copyright
New York, September 24; Cincinnati, October 27; Eugene, Oregon, November
* Digital Resources for Research in the Humanities
Sydney, September 26-28
* EBLIDA Workshop on the Acquisition and Usage of Electronic
The Hague, September 28
* Summer School on the Digital Library 2001: Electronic
Florence, October 7-12
* IT in the Transformation of the Library
Milwaukee, October 11-14
* International Conference on Dublin Core and Metadata Applications
Tokyo, October 22-26
* Information in a Networked World: Harnessing the Flow
Washington D.C., November 2-8
* Electronic Book 2001: Authors, Applications, and
Washington D.C., November 5-7
This is the Free Online Scholarship Newsletter (ISSN 1535-7848).
Please feel free to forward this newsletter to interested colleagues.
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Guide to the FOS Movement
Copyright (c) 2001, Peter Suber