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News Feature: Open Access and an Early Warning System

August 9, 2023, #49

On 3 August Helen Branswell wrote a post in the STAT blog called: “ProMED, an Early Warning System on Disease Outbreaks, Appears near Collapse”¹. ProMED is “a program operated by the International Society for Infectious Diseases”¹ and played a role in providing early information about COVID. ProMed announced on 14 July 2023 that it has financial problems: “ProMED needs unrestricted operational funding, and we have found that those opportunities are few and far between as various regional and global surveillance hub efforts come online. While the COVID-19 pandemic made the entire world aware of the importance of pandemic preparedness and epidemic surveillance, ProMED has been unable to capitalize on the unprecedented amounts of money that were infused into this space.”² They explain further that they have sought funding, but “many of our traditional funders have moved to project-based funding under the premise that other government and international entities will cover sustainment costs….”² Nothing worked, not even their own fundraising campaign. Their solution is to charge subscriptions.

A group of moderators posted a protest about ProMed’s plan. They “announced they were suspending work for ProMED, expressed a lack of confidence in the ISID’s (International Society for Infectious Diseases) administrative operations, suggesting ProMED needs to find a new home.”¹ The unpaid moderators write “we cannot be expected to continue working on good will alone”¹. They play a key editorial function by receiving information from scientists who want to remain anonymous, that the moderators then assess and curate before sending out. Linda MacKinnon, the CEO of ISID responded to the criticism: “predictable sustained revenue stream for the massive amount of work that takes place within ProMED is not something we should be afraid to talk about”³.

The situation is not unlike that of unpaid editors and reviewers for open-access journals, who do essential unremunerated work to make it possible to get information out to everyone, regardless of whether they can afford to pay for it. The trouble is that publishing the information involves costs beyond what the moderators do for free. Just providing a reliable and accessible platform involves hidden costs and maintenance. In the end some entity must step up to provide infrastructure support for valuable services like this. It could be a university. It could be a government. The question, as always, is what entity is prepared to volunteer?

 

1: Helen Branswell, ‘ProMED, an Early Warning System on Disease Outbreaks, Appears near Collapse’, STAT (blog), 3 August 2023, https://www.statnews.com/2023/08/03/promed-early-warning-system-on-disease-outbreaks-appears-near-collapse/. 2: ‘Promed Post’, ProMED-Mail (blog), 14 July 2023, https://promedmail.org/promed-post/. 3: Helen Branswell, ‘Organization behind ProMED Defends Move to Subscription-Based Model’, STAT (blog), 4 August 2023, https://www.statnews.com/2023/08/04/organization-behind-promed-defends-move-to-subscription-based-model/.

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