New Premise in Science: Get the Word Out Quickly, Online
December 17, 2002
By AMY HARMON
A group of prominent scientists is mounting an electronic
challenge to the leading scientific journals, accusing them
of holding back the progress of science by restricting
online access to their articles so they can reap higher
Supported by a $9 million grant from the Gordon and Betty
Moore Foundation, the scientists say that this week they
will announce the creation of two peer-reviewed online
journals on biology and medicine, with the goal of
cornering the best scientific papers and immediately
depositing them in the public domain.
By providing a highly visible alternative to what they view
as an outmoded system of distributing information, the
founders hope science itself will be transformed. The two
journals are the first of what they envision as a vast
electronic library in which no one has to pay dues or seek
permission to read, copy or use the collective product of
the world's academic research.
"The written record is the lifeblood of science," said Dr.
Harold E. Varmus, a Nobel laureate in medicine and
president of the Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center who
is serving as the chairman of the new nonprofit publisher.
"Our ability to build on the old to discover the new is all
based on the way we disseminate our results."
By contrast, established journals like Science and Nature
charge steep annual subscription fees and bar access to
their online editions to nonsubscribers, although Science
recently began providing free electronic access to articles
a year after publication.
The new publishing venture, Public Library of Science, is
an outgrowth of several years of friction between
scientists and the journals over who should control access
to scientific literature in the electronic age. For most
scientists, who typically assign their copyright to the
journals for no compensation, the main goal is to
distribute their work as widely as possible.
Academic publishers argue that if they made the articles
more widely available they would lose the subscription
revenue they need to ensure the quality of the editorial
process. Far from holding back science, they say, the
journals have played a crucial role in its advancement as a
trusted repository of significant discovery.
"We have very high standards, and it is somewhat costly,"
said Dr. Donald Kennedy, the editor of Science. "We're
dealing in a market whether we like it or not."
Science estimates that 800,000 people read the magazine
electronically now, compared with 140,000 readers of the
print version. Given the number of downloads at
universities like Harvard and Stanford, which buy site
licenses for about $5,000 a year, the magazine says people
are reading articles for only a few cents each.
In many cases even such small per-article charges to access
a digital database can make for substantial income. The
Dutch-British conglomerate Reed Elsevier Group, the world's
largest academic publisher, posted a 30 percent profit last
year on its science publishing activities. Science took in
$34 million last year on advertising alone.
But supporters of the Public Library of Science say the
point is not how much money the journals make, but their
monopoly control over literature that should belong to the
"We would be perfectly happy for them to have huge profit
margins providing that in exchange for all this money we're
giving them we got to own the literature and the literature
did not belong to them," said Dr. Michael B. Eisen, a
biologist at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory and the
University of California, and a founder of the Public
Library of Science.
When scientists relied on print-and-paper journals to
distribute their work, the Library's supporters argue, it
made sense to charge for access, since each copy
represented an additional expense. But they say that at a
time when the Internet has reduced distribution costs to
almost zero, a system that grants journals exclusive rights
over distribution is no longer necessary.
By publishing on the Internet and forgoing any profits, the
new venture says it is now possible to maintain a
high-quality journal without charging subscription fees.
Instead, the new journals hope institutions that finance
research will come to regard publishing as part of the
cost. The journals will initially ask most authors to pay
about $1,500 per article, for exposure to a wider potential
audience and a much faster turnaround time.
The library's founders agree that its success will depend
largely on whether leading scholars are willing to forsake
the certain status of publishing in the established
journals to support the principle of science as a public
resource. In a profession where publishing in a top journal
is often crucial to success and grant money, that may be a
"I'd be happy to forswear publishing in any of those
journals, but I'm not in a position where I need a job,"
said Dr. Marc Kirschner, chairman of the cell biology
department at Harvard Medical School and a member of the
electronic library's editorial board. "The difficulty will
be getting over this hump from the point where people say,
`Why should I risk it?' to where they don't see it as a
In that regard, the Howard Hughes Medical Institute - the
nonprofit institute whose $11 billion endowment makes it a
leading supporter of medical research - has emerged as a
powerful ally. Dr. Thomas R. Cech, the institute's
president, has publicly endorsed the library's goals and
promised to cover its investigators' extra costs of
publishing in the new journals.
As for other researchers, "people will want to be
associated with this because it is such a good deed," said
another member of the library's editorial board, Dr.
Nicholas R. Cozzarelli, editor of The Proceedings of the
National Academy of Sciences.
Unfettered access to the literature, library supporters
say, would eliminate unnecessary duplication and allow
doctors in poor countries, scientists at budget-conscious
institutions, high school students, cancer patients and
anyone else who could not afford subscriptions to benefit
from existing research and add to it.
Moreover, they say, the taxpayers, who spend nearly $40
billion a year on biomedical research, should not have to
pay again - or wait some unspecified period - to be able to
search for and see the results themselves.
But Derk Haank, chairman of Elsevier Science, whose 1,500
journals include Cell, says such criticism is misguided.
Elsevier, he says, is offering broader access to its
electronic databases to the institutions that want it for
far less than the cost of subscribing to dozens of paper
journals. "It sounds very sympathetic to say this should be
available to the public," he said. "But this kind of
material is only used by experts."
Still, in addition to making data available to more people
sooner, the electronic library's founders argue that the
research itself becomes more valuable when it is not walled
off by copyrights and Balkanized in separate electronic
databases. They envision the sprouting of a kind of cyber
neural network, where all of scientific knowledge can be
searched, sorted and grafted with a fluidity that will
Under the library's editorial policy, any data can be
integrated into new work as long as the original author is
credited appropriately. The model is inspired by GenBank,
the central repository of DNA sequences whose open access
policy has driven much of the progress in genomics and
biotechnology of the last decade.
The library's roots can be traced to Dr. Patrick O. Brown's
frustration at the barriers to literature he needed for
research at his genetics laboratory at the Stanford
University School of Medicine in 1998. "The information I
wanted was information scientists had published with the
goal of making it available to all their colleagues," he
said. "And I couldn't get it readily because of the way the
system was organized."
Dr. Varmus, then director of the National Institutes for
Health, talked with Dr. Brown in January 1999 and decided
to pay for a Web site that would provide free access to
peer-reviewed scientific literature. PubMedCentral
(www.pubmedcentral.gov) was opened the next year.
By a year later, however, only a handful of journals had
decided to participate in the government archive. In an
effort to whip up enthusiasm, Drs. Varmus, Brown and Eisen
began circulating an open letter to the journals, asking
them to place their articles in a free online database.
The petition quickly garnered 30,000 signers around the
world, including several Nobel laureates, who promised to
publish their work only in journals that complied with
their demand. But almost none did.
That is when Dr. Varmus and his colleagues became convinced
that they needed to raise money to start their own
publication. After being rejected by several traditional
science research foundations, the scientists found a
sympathetic ear at the Silicon Valley foundation whose
benefactor, Dr. Gordon E. Moore, was the co-founder of
"Scientists are a conservative bunch," said Dr. Edward
Penhoet, the foundation's senior director for science. "In
the short term they'll still be publishing in Cell and
other places. But in the long term, I think this has the
potential to dramatically facilitate science."
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