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By Kevin Davies

November 15, 2003 | Unable to persuade traditional scientific publishers to release their monopoly on scientific and medical literature archives, the Public Library of Science (PLoS) has taken matters into its own hands. Last month, the organization debuted PLoS Biology, a journal that provides free, unlimited access to “exciting” peer-review research, allowing authors to retain copyright but levying a fee for publication.

Introducing the premiere issue, PLoS founders Patrick Brown (Stanford University), Michael Eisen (Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory), and former NIH director Harold Varmus (Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center) urged the scientific community to embrace open access. “If we succeed, everyone who has … an Internet connection will be a keystroke away from our living treasury of scientific and medical knowledge.”

Aside from aiding students, researchers, physicians, and patients, “freeing the information in the scientific literature … opens up myriad new possibilities for navigating, integrating, “mining,” annotating, and mapping connections in the high-dimensional space of scientific knowledge.” (See Digging into Digital Quarries, Oct. 2003 Bio-IT World, page 38.)

But most scientific publishers remain cool to PLoS. “We would have appreciated the launch of their product in a constructive way, without the bashing of publishers and an effort to force everyone to become open-access publishers,” said Martin Frank, executive director of the nonprofit American Physiological Society (APS), alluding to years of frequently acrimonious debate surrounding open access.

The latest spat saw Patrick Brown charging The New England Journal of Medicine with “editorial misconduct” over its decision not to grant immediate access to a microarray paper submitted by his group. (The report was ultimately published in July, but only after Brown withdrew his name as co-author.) The journal countered that Brown “placed his desire to promote his personal interest above his responsibility to his research colleagues."

DIY Publishing
Key to the long-term success of PLoS will be persuading young scientists, most of whom support the organization’s goals, to forego the rare opportunity to publish in the boutique journals, where one publication can launch a career. The perennial allure of these publications was wryly captured by one of the recipients of this year’s Nobel Prize in physiology or medicine. "You could write the entire history of science in the last 50 years in terms of papers rejected by Science or Nature," said Paul C. Lauterbur, whose seminal 1973 paper on magnetic resonance imaging was originally rejected by Nature.

Originally, PLoS had no intent of entering the publishing business. Founded in 2000, the organization quickly garnered some 30,000 signatures from scientists around the world on a petition protesting the exorbitant prices and restricted access foisted upon them by the publishers of more than 4,000 scholarly journals. Signatories pledged not to submit papers to, review for, or purchase journals that did not offer open access within a matter of months.

A few leading journals, including the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, The New England Journal of Medicine, and Science, offered minor concessions, lifting access restrictions three to 12 months after publication. But scientific societies in particular argued strenuously that open access would cripple subscription revenue and potentially drive them out of business.

Rebuffed, the PLoS secured a “generous” $9-million grant from the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation, and recruited former Cell editor Vivian Siegel to manage its own fledgling publishing empire. Earlier this year, PLoS aired a fanciful television commercial, depicting a businessman flying into the air like Superman thanks to the revolution inspired by open access, culminating in the slogan: (knowledge) x (access) = progress.

The inaugural issue of PLoS Biology, published last month, contains nine strong research articles, including papers from leading investigators in the fields of neuroscience, immunology, genetics, and cell biology, who were lauded for their “courage and pioneering spirit.” Specific topics include a mathematical model based on differential equations of a signaling pathway in embryonic development, a microarray analysis of malaria infection, and DNA studies on the evolution of Borneo elephants. The first edition also includes copious review and commentary material, including a journal club section restricted to postdocs.

Researchers and publishers will be following PLoS Biology, and the imminent launch of PLoS Medicine, closely. The London-based Journal of Biology, published by BioMed Central, has published only 10 research articles since its launch in June 2002. Traditional publishers are nervously exploring open-access models for select journals. Martin Richardson, director of the Oxford University Press Journals division, announced that its flagship journal, Nucleic Acids Research, will follow an open-access model for its next annual database edition, published in January 2004. He sees “author charges gradually increasing over time [replacing subscription fees] until the model is self-funding.”

Martin Frank is also exploring an open-access model with the APS journal Physiological Genomics. “The success of that effort will determine the speed at which we might be able to transition our other journals to an open-access model,” he says.


For reprints and/or copyright permission, please contact Angela Parsons, 781.972.5467.