Re: Information Exchange Groups (IEGs)

From: Jim Till <till_at_OCI.UTORONTO.CA>
Date: Sun, 19 Mar 2000 07:42:19 -0500

On Mon, 13 Mar 2000, David Goodman wrote:

> Two key objections to IEGs at the time were: 1. Their exclusive
> nature. They were available only to a small group of laboratories.
> 2. The extremely cumbersome method of distribution and inconvenient
> format of the material. ...

I've obtained a copy of David Green's article in International Science and
Technology (renamed Science & Technology after 1967) in no. 65, May 1967,
pp. 82-88. It's a very interesting article. For example, Green (who
chaired IEG No. 1, on electron transfer and oxidative phosphorylation)
noted that: "A group chairman was selected whose essential mandate was to
ensure that every active worker in the field should become a member, and
that communication between members should be maximized". He claimed that
the "only qualification for membership was evidence that the applicant was
an active worker in the field" and that "Of the 725 members of my group,
329 were resident outside the U.S., with 32 different countries
represented". So, it appears that the IEGs (or, at least, IEG No. 1)
tried *not* to be exclusive.

Green also claimed that: "At least 90% of the important papers in my field
were being processed through IEG No. 1 before the group was terminated".
It appears that it wasn't the active workers in the field who were
effectively excluded, it was those who might wish to make practical use of
the contents of these important papers, for educational purposes, or for
applied and developmental work (such as in clinical medicine, see, for
example, an editorial about the IEGs, entitled 'Information exchange', in
N. Engl. J. Med. 1967; 276 no. 4: 238-9).

Another interesting quotation from Green's article: "In the early days,
many believed that the IEG's [sic] would be outlets for a flood of
rubbish. This flood never materialized [for IEG No. 1]. When
communication is to be scrutinized by 700 or more experts, only a fool
would risk presenting on [sic] inferior article or a potboiler. The
quality of the communications was certainly no worse than the quality of
articles found in the published literature, and this despite the absence
of reviewing or editorial selection". [It should be noted that David
Green, at that time, was co-director of the Institute for Enzyme Research
at the University of Wisconsin, and was a leader in the field of IEG No.

Green did not name the "executive editors of five biochemical journals"
who [at a meeting of the Commission of Editors of Biochemical Journals of
the International Union of Biochemistry in Vienna on 10-11 September
1996], "decided to reject the publication of any article that had been
distributed previously through IEG".

However, they are identified in a letter by W.V. Thorpe published in
Science (1967; 155 no. 3767, 10 March: 1195-6). They were some of the
senior leaders in their fields:

J.T. Edsall (J. Biol. Chem.)
J.C. Kendrew (J. Mol. Biol.)
H. Neurath (Biochem.)
E.C. Slater (Biochim. Biophys. Acta.)
W.V. Thorpe (Biochem. J.)

A note in Nature ('Preprints made outlaws', Nature 1966; 212, 1 October:
4) about this meeting in Vienna, includes a comment that "the editors of
six principal journals" agreed to make recommendations to their editorial
boards that could "put IEG out of business". I've not been able to
identify the sixth editor (if indeed there was a sixth). The two lethal
recommendations were: 1) not to accept for publication preprints
previously circulated through the IEGs, and, 2) not to allow papers
already accepted for publication to be circulated in the IEG system.

Green suggested, in his article, that: "In retrospect, it was not the
failure, but rather the overwhelming success of the [IEG] experiment,
which finally spelled its doom".

A (tentative!) conclusion of my own: a majority of the IEGs were indeed
probably too successful, both from the viewpoint of the editors of major
journals (continuation of IEGs would reduce their prestige), and also from
the perspective of NIH administrators (appropriate continuation of the
IEGs, in adequate numbers, and supported by adequate reprinting
facilities, would be quite costly).

What does seem very clear is that several helpful lessons could be learned
from a thorough and well-balanced evaluation of the IEG experiment.

--Jim Till

Ontario Cancer Insitute, and
Joint Centre for Bioethics, University of Toronto
Toronto, Canada
Received on Mon Jan 24 2000 - 19:17:43 GMT

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