The Society of Environmental Journalists is urging the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences to abandon plans to downgrade and privatize its flagship journal, Environmental Health Perspectives. SEJ wrote the NIEHS director saying "to go forward on this course would be effectively to destroy an excellent magazine and to replace it with a different one of far less value to NIEHS and the U.S. public."
NIEHS on Oct. 12, 2006, put out a "Request for Proposals" seeking private contractors to run the magazine. Informed sources tell WatchDog that NIEHS Director David A. Schwartz plans to cut the magazine's budget by some 85 percent pushing a contractor to downgrade the magazine or raise revenues to make up some of the difference.
Environmental Health Perspectives (EHP) currently sets a national benchmark for "open access" publishing. While subscriptions to the print edition are sold for money, articles are available online to any reader in the world, quickly and without charge. To make money, any contractor would almost certainly need to shut off open access and charge money radically decreasing the number of readers the magazine reaches.
SEJ wrote Schwartz Nov. 29, 2006, urging him not to outsource the magazine and cut its budget. SEJ takes positions on issues affecting public access to environmental information through its First Amendment Task Force.
"While NIEHS might save a few dollars with this approach, it would certainly be losing many thousands of readers," SEJ wrote Schwartz. "It seems penny-wise and pound-foolish, since the total amount NIEHS spends on EHP is scarcely half of one percent of its annual budget. That seems like a small investment if it helps ensure that the research funded by the bulk of NIEHS' budget reaches the people in the public health arena who can apply it to benefit the U.S. and world populations."
NIEHS announced in September 2005 that it was considering "privatization" of EHP a term for which it is hard to find a precise definition, but one likely to please the free-market philosophers in the Bush administration. After overwhelmingly negative public comment on this idea, Schwartz issued a press release on June 28, 2006, saying NIEHS "will continue to publish" EHP leading many to believe he had abandoned privatization plans.
But in fact, the contracting out of most of the magazine's major functions to a private publisher as NIEHS indicated it would do in its request for proposals will amount to privatization.
NIEHS is currently searching for a new editor for the magazine. Under the new plan, the editor would still be appointed by NIEHS, but would come from outside the agency.
It is not clear whether the newly empowered Democratic majority in Congress will intervene in EHP's outsourcing. They are still getting organized and finalizing committee chairmanships. Bidding on the request for proposals has already closed, and NIEHS hopes to award the contract in January or February, very soon after the new Congress starts.