LIBRES (Library and Information Science Electronic Journal) has just published an article of mine entitled “What Should be the Role of Government-Supported Medical Websites?” I begin by noting that low-budget medical websites with crackpot advice can sometimes score higher than MedlinePlus on Google. MedlinePlus is a major product of the National Library of Medicine, which has an annual budget of $250 million and is supported directly by the National Institutes of Health. NIH, in turn, has a budget of $20 billion and employs 18,000 people, including 5-10 Nobel Laureates at any given time. The openness of the Internet means that official, white-coated medicine (as embodied by NIH) is losing its monopoly–and that is not necessarily a good thing.
I ask whether we should take various modest steps to push Web-searchers toward official portals like MedlinePlus. I conclude that we should, although this is not an easy question, since government sites have been known to manipulate medical information for political reasons, and drug companies have excessive power over the medical profession.
Peter Suber immediately noticed my article. Peter is probably the world’s leading advocate of open-access publishing. Material is open-access if it is “digital, online, free of charge, and free of most copyright and licensing restrictions.” LIBRES is an open-access publication: peer-reviewed, but available free on the Internet. Therefore, Peter monitors it. I asked him how he could track so many sites so efficiently, and he told me that he uses WebSite Watcher to “crawl” through 100 sites each day and notify him of all changes.
Peter says he agrees that government websites like MedlinePlus are great, but they would be better if NIH required all of the work it funded to be open-access. There is a serious proposal to make that happen: see Peter’s FAQ page.