New open-access journals

Public Library of Science seeks to change scientific publishing model from within

Betsy Mason(
Dec 19, 2002

A group of scientists is taking the idea of open access to scientific literature into their own hands by starting their own journals. Backed by a $9 million grant from the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation, the non-profit organization Public Library of Science (PLoS) plans to launch two journals in biology and medicine next year that will be accessible on the internet by anyone.

"There are a lot of people who are interested in and would benefit greatly from the scientific literature, but don't have access," said Michael Eisen, a biologist at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, and a founder of PLoS. "Our goal is to make every paper that is published in biology and medicine, and eventually other disciplines, freely available to everyone who wants to use it."

The same group tried to pressure existing subscription journals into embracing open access in 2001 by circulating a petition among scientists who agreed to boycott the journals. The petition garnered more than 30,000 signatures, but was largely unsuccessful because very few scientists honored it and all but a few journals were unmoved.

So PLoS is taking its cause to the next level by publishing its own open-access journals. "There are so many reasons to do it this way," said Eisen. One of the biggest is that some people, such as scientists in poor countries, researchers at smaller institutions in this country, and lay people don't have access to scientific literature, he explained. Another reason is that currently, there is no way for scientists to electronically search the full text of every paper.

"Any scientist will tell you that nothing is more annoying than not being able to look at a research article if you want to," said Peter Newmark, editorial director of BioMed Central (The Scientist's publishing partner), which currently publishes around 60 open-access online journals. Newmark is pleased to see more open-access journals entering the field. "We've been waiting for this to happen," he said. "We hope they succeed because the more people who do it, it adds weight to the idea that this is a sensible model."

"I think it's healthy for the community to try new things," said Charles Jennings, executive editor of the Nature research journals. "I think it puts pressure on all the journals to justify the service they provide the community." But Jennings thinks the major hurdle for the fledgling journals will be to attract quality papers from scientists who want to publish their work in a prestigious journal.

Eisen agrees. "The key to whether or not we succeed is if scientists are willing to send us their best work." For the next 6–9 months, Eisen and his colleagues at PLoS will be beating the bushes throughout the life sciences community trying to convince prominent researchers to publish work in the first issues of the new journals. "If we can hit the ground running with a bang, then everything else will follow," said Eisen.

If the new journals succeed, PLoS plans to start more journals in subdisciplines of biology and medicine, as well as in other fields such as Chemistry and Physics. "I believe this is going to have a profound impact on how scientists communicate with each other," said Eisen. "And I think scientists recognize this and will want to be a part of it."

The first two new journals, to be called PLoS Biology and PLoS Medicine, will initially charge authors $1,500 to publish their work. The fee is potentially prohibitive for some research institutions, but Eisen hopes the charge will shrink as the publications gain momentum and that institutions will come to consider such publishing fees part of the cost of research.

The Howard Hughes Medical Institute (HHMI) has already endorsed that view by agreeing to pay the charge for the 332 investigators it currently supports. "Since we're paying people to do their work, we'd like it to be widely distributed," said Gerry Rubin, a vice president of HHMI. "Part of our mission is science in the public interest, and this is in the public interest."

Rubin, a professor of genetics at the University of California, Berkeley, is a long-time supporter of the open access idea and said that he won't hesitate to publish his work in the new PLoS journals. "The majority of my papers in the last couple of years have been in open-access journals because I believe in it. I'm voting with my feet."