The free research movement

The Public Library of Science aims to break the stranglehold that expensive academic journals have over federally funded research -- and start a scientific revolution.

Published July 1, 2003 7:30PM (EDT)

Michael Eisen, a biologist at UC-Berkeley, once spent a summer working as a play-by-play announcer for the minor league Columbia Mules, and when he talks about the sorry state of scientific publishing, he has a tendency to slip into an announcer's voice -- quick, high-pitched, loud, intense.

"It's ridiculous," Eisen said in this voice during a recent phone interview from Washington. "All these things we're so used to doing with information on the Internet, we're preventing clever entrepreneurial people from doing with works of science. The idea that a narrow profit motive would prevent the dissemination of this information -- it's insane!"

Eisen was in Washington to lend his support to a congressional effort he believes will make scientific publishing less insane and less ridiculous. Most scientific journals -- such as Science, Nature or the New England Journal of Medicine -- require researchers to turn over all rights to the reports selected for publication; the publications then charge institutions and individuals subscription fees to view these reports, a model that Eisen believes inhibits scientific progress. The approach is especially galling, Eisen says, when you consider that a great deal of the money that funds the research published in these journals comes from the federal government. The public is paying for science that it never gets to see, he says.

On June 26, Rep. Martin Sabo, a Minnesota Democrat, introduced the Public Access to Science Act, a bill intended to rectify the situation. The act would amend U.S. copyright law to deny copyright protection to all "scientific work substantially funded by the federal government." Since the U.S. government is the world's largest sponsor of scientific research -- the White House asked for more than $57 billion for science in 2003 -- Sabo's bill would have profound implications for scientific publishing. If passed, it would instantly put a huge swath of newly published research into the public domain, upending the journals' pay-for-access business models.

In a statement, Sabo said, "It is wrong when a breast cancer patient cannot access federally funded research data paid for by her hard-earned taxes. It is wrong when the family whose child has a rare disease must pay again for research data their tax dollars already paid for." He added that "it defies logic to collectively pay for our medical research, only to privatize its profitability and availability."

Eisen has been saying such things for a long while. In 2000, Eisen helped start the Public Library of Science, a nonprofit organization dedicated to "making the world's scientific and medical literature a public resource." He was joined in the effort by Harold Varmus, the Nobel Laureate who directed the National Institutes of Health under Bill Clinton, and Patrick Brown, a Stanford biochemist who pioneered the use of DNA microarrays, a technology that's reshaping biological research. Eisen, Varmus and Brown believed that if they could get scientists to insist on open-access publishing models, the scientific journals would have no choice but to change their ways. And the best way to get scientists to insist on open access, Eisen says, is by showing them that a journal published in an open way can be just as successful -- and prestigious -- as long-established journals.

In December, after receiving a $9 million grant from the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation, PLoS, as the Public Library is known, announced that it would soon publish two journals -- PLoS Biology and PLoS Medicine -- both online and in the traditional printed format. The group has come up with a novel business model that it believes will enable these journals to be "sustainable." Instead of charging readers subscription fees to access reports, PLoS would ask the institutions that fund scientific research to pay for the costs associated with publishing scientific research. The price would be modest -- $1, 500 -- says Eisen, for what would be a great service to science: Reports published in PLoS would be freely available to anyone anywhere in the world.

PLoS's efforts have caused a stir in the orthodox world of scientific publishing; the group has managed to recruit several editors from the ranks of other prestigious journals, and there are rumors that many of the staffers who remain at the established publications are pushing their bosses for change.

Most of the journal staff and publishers contacted by Salon for this story were either unavailable or declined to comment on PLoS's efforts and the Sabo bill. But one man who did talk was Robert Bovenschulte, who directs the publication division of the American Chemical Society, which publishes 31 scientific journals. Bovenschulte is skeptical of the idea that scientific research is not widely disseminated; through the various institutions that subscribe to his journals, he says, most people who need the highly technical information that he publishes probably have no problem getting it. "There's one place where I would say there's something of a barrier," he said. "If you are a member of the general public who does not have any affiliation with a university or corporation, you're not going to have our content."

Do members of the general public even need access to extremely technical research -- to, say, an article about "the latest development in the crystal structure of some molecule," as Bovenschulte put it? Eisen says we do. Science works better, he says, when everybody sees what's going on -- the accessibility leads to new breakthroughs, to people from disparate fields bringing new ideas to old-school techniques. Even if Sabo's bill doesn't get very far in Congress, Eisen believes that the prevailing mood in the scientific community is to embrace this openness. The closed-door policies of the science journals are untenable in this atmosphere, he says. PLoS's philosophy, several supporters say, closely mirrors that of the open-source software world -- but if it succeeds, its fruits could conceivably be greater than simply producing a more stable operating system. It could lead, the people at PLoS say, to a revolution in science.

According to PLoS, Martin Sabo's bill would be a quite logical extension to copyright law. Currently, the group points out, works produced by the federal government are not eligible for copyright protection -- if a NASA scientist writes a report, or if a national park ranger draws up a map, the work is automatically put in the public domain. But copyright statutes have long allowed authors whose research is funded through government grants to claim copyright status. That was done, Eisen says, to give publishing companies and scientific organizations an economic incentive to publish research.

"But in the electronic age" -- one in which production costs are lower, and wide dissemination is easier -- "the whole logic is completely shifted," Eisen says. Now copyrights on federally funded work are a barrier to open access, and publishers have done little to adapt to this new age, he says. "When publishers made the move from print to electronic publications, they chose to continue their subscription-based business model despite the fact that the economics had changed."

Scientific journals agree that the Internet has changed business dramatically for them, and they insist that they're thinking of ways to use the technology to make scientific research as freely available as possible. In response to the Sabo bill, the American Association for the Advancement of Science, the nonprofit society that publishes Science, said in a statement that it does not comment on pending legislation, but that it "will be analyzing this subject as part of a larger effort to address the intersection of intellectual property, science, and the public interest. This is a complex issue that deserves a thoughtful discussion." The group also noted that all of its reports become "freely available" 12 months after publication. And Science, like many other large journals, provides some free access to researchers in developing countries.

But Eisen dismisses these efforts. He notes that when Science says that it makes year-old reports "freely" available, it doesn't quite mean "free as in freedom" -- the rallying call of the free-software movement, an ethos that would require the journals to relinquish all rights to the reports. The journals' conception of "free" prohibits people from "putting scientific reports in a central database, to do anything interesting at all with this stuff."

This idea of a centralized, searchable database in which all scientific data can be archived forever is PLoS's dream. By bringing together disparate scientific disciplines under one roof, such a system would make scientific research more productive, Eisen says. As it's practiced today, scientists need to read material from a wide range of research areas. Eisen himself is a good example of this. He was trained as a mathematician and as a biologist, and his work -- to apply "computational and experimental genomic approaches to study how genome sequences specify organismal form and function," according to his Web site -- requires him to keep up with computer science and electrical engineering as well.

In October 2000 PLoS asked scientists around the world to sign on to an open letter demanding that journals make their information freely available for the creation of such a centralized library. "Beginning in September 2001," the letter pledged, "we will publish in, edit or review for, and personally subscribe to only those scholarly and scientific journals that have agreed to grant unrestricted free distribution rights to any and all original research reports that they have published." According to PLoS, more than 33,000 scientists in 183 countries have since signed the letter.

But the publishers didn't make many changes to their policies, Eisen says. "We originally expected them to recognize that this is good for the scientific community, but instead the journals -- many of which are run by nonprofit groups that represent the scientific community -- chose to behave like for-profit companies," Eisen says. "They were unwilling to give up this huge cash cow." That's when PLoS decided that the only way to make the journals change their approach was to compete with them directly.

In January, Vivian Siegel resigned as editor of the journal Cell to become PLoS's executive director and oversee the production of its first two journals. Siegel left Cell because her superiors at the Dutch publishing company Elsevier refused to consider an open-access model, she says. "I'd felt for the long time that opening up access to the literature was something important that we should do, and I realized it was not something we would ever do at Cell" -- even though "most of the editors [at Cell] were pretty unanimous about letting people have access to the reports," Siegel says.

Elsevier's refusal to open access to Cell "was kind of a divining rod for me and my future there," Siegel says. "Previously, I'd felt like I was a scientist working at a journal, and that [at Cell] I could make decisions based on what was good for the community. But with their refusal to open access, I had to choose what I wanted to be. I could do one of two things: keep my job and change my alliance -- I could become a publisher instead of a scientist -- or I had to leave."

Starting a new scientific journal is not an easy proposition, and at least initially PLoS will likely have a tough time commanding the sort of prestige that journals like Science and Nature are seen to have. But "ultimately there is only one thing that makes a journal prestigious," Eisen says, "and that is publishing really great papers. If we can get scientists to give us not just their moral support but real tangible support by giving us their best papers, we'll be showing that we publish great work."

At a press conference in San Francisco on Thursday, Patrick Brown, one of PLoS's co-founders, acknowledged that scientists -- whose careers are determined largely on the basis of the work they've published -- might be wary of submitting work to a new journal like PLoS Biology. But at the same time, he said, "the best scientists are willing to take risks." And he said he's heard of many colleagues who are "itching" to complete their work to get it into PLoS Biology's first issue, which will be published in October. The group has already received "quite an astounding number of papers," he said.

Bovenschulte, of the American Chemical Society, said he thought PLoS's model could work out, but he doubted that it would become the norm in the science publishing business. "It would be extraordinary to imagine that all publishing will migrate to this model within the next 10 years or so," he said. He said that while many scientists have expressed sympathy with PLoS's efforts, "my feeling is that it's a small percentage of authors who agree zealously with them." Not many researchers will want to pay PLoS to have their work published, says Bovenschulte, referring to the portion of a scientist's grant money that would have to be set aside for the publication of the research.

"They may say they agree with PLoS," Bovenschulte says, "but what will they do when they have to write a check for money that could have gone to further research? Maybe they'll do it. Maybe they won't." Nevertheless, Bovenschulte said he wishes PLoS good luck, "and the only thing I regret is that they're trying to change the law."

Asked what effect the Sabo bill's passage would have on his journals, Bovenschulte said, "I think it would be devastating."

But the people at PLoS say it's time the other journals did face some disruptions to their preferred way of doing things -- either from the law, or from competing journals, or both. "The fact of the matter is, people tend not to want to change," says Siegel. "The only thing that would make you want to give up all that money is if you have a serious competitor there."

By Farhad Manjoo

Farhad Manjoo is a Salon staff writer and the author of True Enough: Learning to Live in a Post-Fact Society.

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