Opposition Heavy To US Environmental Health Agency Plan To Privatise Open Access Journal

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By Steve Gibb for Intellectual Property Watch

WASHINGTON, DC – The director of the US National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences (NIEHS) is facing overwhelming opposition to a plan to privatise an open-access environmental science journal NIEHS publishes, according to public comments on the plan.

NIEHS last September proposed privatizing Environmental Health Perspectives (EHP), www.ehponline.org, a free, online monthly that publishes information on major toxics like dioxin, mercury and lead and distributes the data free to developing countries. The privatization plan came after a budgetary review, and NIEHS’ new director suggested the funding could be re-directed toward research.

But the privatization plan is drawing broad domestic criticism from academics, state health agencies, and many US Environmental Protection Agency officials, who fear they would lose access to critical data that helps agency scientists set toxic risk limits and other policies affecting vulnerable populations, according to comments obtained under the Freedom of Information Act.

There also is a lengthy set of international comments expressing opposition to the plan as well. In addition to comments from Taiwan, Israel, Argentina, New Zealand and India, over 35 Chinese scientists emphasized the value of the information to them in addressing the country’s environmental challenges and praised EHP’s quarterly Chinese edition. “Don’t let the world fall down into black fog,” a Taiwanese commenter says.

NIEHS director David Schwartz said in a recent interview that he will decide about the privatization option in the next three to six months. “We will be exploring all the opportunities and options available to make this the strongest environmental science journal that is accessible to the widest audience. If he opts for privatization, he likely would establish a formal procedure soliciting bids, reviewing them, and deciding on open-access policies for the archives.

About 94 percent of over 330 public respondents opposed privatization of the journal outright, saying it would be a “disadvantage” or “strong disadvantage.” In addition, just over four percent support privatization only if EHP’s content remains free online, according to an analysis of the comments. Less than two percent of the comments supported unconditional privatization.

Several commenters highlighted their preference for submitting works to open access journals. “Many high-quality journals are published by both non-profit private sector organizations such as technical societies and by commercial publishers. In general, I prefer to publish in journals that are low cost or open access to maximize readership of the work,” a University of Utah toxicologist said.

“The journal has been, without question, the most important and objective resource on environmental health matters in this country, and perhaps in the world today,” said a Harvard Medical School professor. “I oppose in the strongest terms possible the privatization of EHP, as it would be a clear cut abrogation of the government’s responsibility to inform its citizens in an area of rapidly increasing importance.”

Another commenter said EHP’s credibility, strong conflict of interest disclosure policies and neutrality are at stake. “There would be conflict of interest violations and slanted research and reporting” if it were privatized, according to the commenter. A number of librarians also objected to the plan, with one saying the result would be “conflict of interest in the business sector, propaganda in the non-profit sector.”

Another said the journal “helps to raise the level of discourse in this vital field for building the technological dimension of a sustainable civilization.”

One group of commenters focused on the long-range value of the publication, predicting that, “sustaining a healthy planet and human population will replace biomedical research as the dominant science challenge of the 21st century.”

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