Energy feels the online squeeze

Beset by large commercial publishing companies, the Energy Department may pull the plug on a 2-year-old Web service that offers the public free access to scientific articles produced by the federal government and about 30 small publishers.

PubScience lets researchers and the public search for abstracts and, in some cases, full articles from more than 1,400 scientific journals. The journals focus mainly on physical sciences and energy-related disciplines.

But in a notice on the PubScience site in August, DOE proposed shutting down the Web site but said it would accept comments on the matter until Sept. 8 and consider them before taking action.

For now, PubScience remains online and part of the notice on the search page says, "A decision will be announced in the near future."

The Web service has been under attack for more than a year by big commercial publishing companies and the Software and Information Industry Association, who say it is an example of a government service that unfairly competes with commercial activities.

PubScience offers access to articles from publishers as diverse as the Massachusetts Institute of Technology Press, the National Academy of Sciences, the Nature Publishing Group and Britain's Royal Society of Chemistry.

The Software and Information Industry Association, which represents "information content" companies, argues that the site should be shut down because it "duplicates and competes with databases" offered by its members. In a position paper, the association says competition from PubScience "makes it increasingly difficult for these private- sector companies to continue offering their products."

Two commercial Web sites offer similar free access to article abstracts. One, Scirus, is owned by publishing giant Elsevier Science. The other, Infotrieve, is a commercial document retrieval and delivery service.

In the August announcement that DOE may pull the plug on PubScience, agency officials said that Scirus and Infotrieve provide access to 90 percent of the journal literature available on PubScience. Thus, agency officials said, PubScience should be discontinued.

The notice provoked outrage among librarians, who say PubScience is essential because it can be counted on to offer free access to scientific information, but commercial publishers cannot.

The American Library Association warned that Scirus and Infotrieve "could at any time change the no-fee status" of their search services.

"The indexing industry has a track record of pricing products out of the reach of most small libraries and colleges, with prices jumping annually by hundreds or even thousands of dollars," warned Marylaine Block, a retired librarian and publisher of Ex Libris, an online magazine about libraries.

Started on Oct. 1, 1999, PubScience is in some ways the online version of a paper abstracting and indexing service that DOE has provided for more than 50 years.

The practice began during the Manhattan Project, when government scientists were busy creating an atomic bomb. Scientific articles on atomic energy were cataloged in the government-published Nuclear Science Abstracts, then later in the Energy Science and Technology Database.

According to DOE's Web site, the Nuclear Science Abstracts were distributed to libraries "at no cost in order to ensure maximum public access and dissemination of the results of research and development projects."

"PubScience continues that tradition," according to DOE's Web site.

Actually, the Web site goes well beyond that tradition, said David LeDuc, public policy director at the Software and Information Industry Association.

"If PubScience were just a digital version of what DOE did prior to the Internet, we wouldn't be concerned," he said. "But PubScience took that concept and expanded it to include over 1,000 private-sector journal titles and links to full text articles. That's not at all what DOE did in the beginning.

"PubScience is so broad, and DOE showed no intention of limiting its scope. In fact, they showed every intent to continue expanding it." That's why PubScience is seen as competing with the private sector, he said.

The Software and Information Industry Association and other trade associations waged and won a similar battle to keep the Internal Revenue Service from offering online tax preparation services to taxpayers, arguing that the IRS would be competing with private tax preparation companies.

But librarians like Mary Alice Baish argue that the federal government has an obligation to ensure the availability of scientific information, much of which is generated with government funds.

"If we lose PubScience, we're going to lose something unique," said Baish, a representative from the American Association of Law Libraries.

Library associations worry that the fate of PubScience may be a harbinger of the future for informational Web sites run by other government agencies, including the National Institutes of Health, the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office, and the Securities and Exchange Commission.

The fact that the plug has not yet been pulled "is a potentially hopeful sign," said Steven Aftergood, a senior research analyst at the Federation of American Scientists. "It may show that the Department of Energy is potentially ready to listen to another point of view."

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Cost of change

In a plea to the Energy Department to spare PubScience, a Web service that provides access to journal articles in the physical sciences and other energy-related disciplines, a coalition of library associations highlighted the cost of commercial services.

The coalition, headed by the American Library Association, cited the results of three test searches using PubScience and two other science-specific search engines, Scirus and Infotrieve. In the first search for an article, PubScience contained the abstract but Scirus and Infotrieve did not, and Infotrieve charged $15.50 for the full article.

A second search yielded abstracts at PubScience and Scirus and no abstract at Infotrieve, which charged $34.50 for the full article.

In a third search, PubScience offered an abstract and links to the full article for free; Scirus offered an abstract and charged $30 for the article; and Infotrieve offered no abstract or link, but charged $14.45 for the article. "There is no information service comparable to PubScience," coalition officials said.

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