November 21, 2002 4:58 PM PST

Government agency pulls Web site

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The Department of Energy closed the online research database Pubscience after receiving complaints that it competed too closely with commercial efforts.

The Web site, a searchable database of more than 2 million documents on physical sciences and energy-related research, was closed in recent weeks after the government department was pressured by the private sector to reassess its value in a marketplace where commercial interests were at stake. A handful of privately owned sites let researchers pull up abstracts of scientific research documents, as well as buy the full-text documents of thousands of technical periodicals.

Proponents of the site's closure said the move fell into line with a federal law that forbids the government to compete with the private sector in business.

"The Department of Energy carefully reviewed Pubscience in light of existing private-sector products and found that Pubscience substantially duplicated private-sector offerings," said David LeDuc, public policy director at the Software & Information Industry Association, the chief trade group for the software and digital content industry, which had lobbied for the site's closure since its inception.

Civil libertarians, however, criticized the move as the result of lobbying efforts to Congress by private interests. Although much of the research available free online was paid for with taxpayer dollars, much of it will now be inaccessible because of private interests, they argue.

"You have a great public service being destroyed by commercial interests, and it's an attack on the public domain," said James Love, director of the Consumer Project on Technology. "It's something that wouldn't happen if we had limits on campaign spending," he said. "It's a case of corruption of U.S. Congress."

In September, the DOE had solicited comments on its plan to discontinue the site after it had discovered that its content overlapped with about 90 percent of materials offered by other companies.

"Private sector information products have emerged that freely offer bibliographic records to Web patrons," according to the site.

The move mirrors other recent efforts to restrict the dissemination of public government data on the Internet, according to researchers. It also raises larger questions about the roles of the government versus the private sector in providing information online.

Launched in 1999, Pubscience contained research materials from more than 1,400 scientific periodicals. Early on, the site was promoted as a benefit to libraries, government researchers, industrial scientists, educators and students. It represented a natural evolution of more than 50 years of work by the DOE?s Office of Scientific and Technical Information to disseminate research, according to the Association of Research Libraries home page.

According to the site, the government subsidizes 80 percent to 90 percent of scientific research and development within the private sector with billions of taxpayer dollars, so it would follow that the site was an extension of that benefit to researchers.

Paul Uhlir, director of international scientific and technical information programs at the National Academy of Sciences, said that it's a loss for the research community because the Pubscience site offered a more comprehensive set of documents than those in the market currently.

Alternatives in the marketplace include Infotrieve and Scirus, which is a member of the software association SIIA.

"It obviously reduces the amount of information that's openly available in a large area of scientific information," said Uhlir.

Uhlir added that other government agencies have been targeted by private interest groups to remove data from the Internet. For example, companies that provide weather data to broadcasters and other outfits have sent letters to the National Weather Service and the NOAA asking them to remove certain weather data from their Web sites, he said. In the past, other trade groups have lobbied the National Institute of Health to take down Pubmed central, a medical and health-related research site similar to the science venture. The site remains online, however.

"It's a public policy issue and the boundaries are kind of fuzzy," said Uhlir. "It's not clear when the government is competing or not. But the point is the public policy aspect has to be considered and that's not always done.

"Since the information was all publicly funded in the first place, the question from a public policy standpoint is, was this in the public interest? That's an open question," Uhlir said.

Lee Tien, senior staff attorney of the Electronic Frontier Foundation, further argues that the private sector should not define what is competitive and by withdrawing the scientific data online, the government is threatening the public's right to access information.

"One really has to wonder how much interest this Administration has in sharing and publishing information from its agencies," Tien said. He cited the government's recent move to pull scientific information from the Web that could prove a security threat.

 

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