music in the park san jose

.Publisher for the People

Biologist Michael Eisen hopes to accomplish for science publishing what Linux set out to do for computing.

music in the park san jose

For biologist Michael Eisen, the ultimate test of his plan to radically change the future of science came down to convincing his skeptical younger brother to print a breakthrough paper in Michael’s unproven research journal.

It was the fall of 2003, and PLoS Biology was set to debut in a matter of weeks. This was the first journal from the nascent Public Library of Science, a nonprofit cofounded three years earlier by Eisen, a 37-year-old Lawrence Berkeley Lab scientist who moonlights as an assistant professor of genetics and development at UC Berkeley. He and his partners hoped to revolutionize academic publishing by making their contributors’ research papers immediately available for free on the Internet. It may not sound revolutionary, but in the billion-dollar business of scientific journals, giving the public free access to publicly funded research was, well, a radical notion.

Michael’s brother Jonathan Eisen, an investigator at the Institute for Genomic Research in Maryland, was adding the finishing touches to a paper detailing the complete genome of a strain of male-targeting bacteria called Wolbachia. The bacteria infect insects, spiders, and worms, and can kill a male host or even convert it into a female. It was too late to get Jonathan’s paper in the debut issue, of course — peer review and editing of a science paper can take months — but as research articles go, this one had sex appeal, and Michael wanted it for PLoS Biology.

Jonathan was already being courted by editors from Nature and Science, the gold standards of the science literature. Every young scientist dreams of being published in these journals, the latter of which was started by Thomas Edison. Such a feat is considered a big plus for career advancement, future grants, and tenure, not to mention a chance to impress your friends at dinner parties. For Jonathan to choose PLoS Biology over Science would be like an investigative reporter running a groundbreaking story on Salon when The New York Times Magazine was asking for it.

Michael hoped to make his journal just as prestigious, which would take time under the best of circumstances. But to even have a prayer, the first issues of PLoS Biology would need to scoop the competition and publish some of the hottest research around.

Easier said than done. Scientists are a pragmatic and risk-averse bunch by nature, collectively about as quick to change course as an oil tanker. Eisen cajoled, even begged his colleagues to take a risk on PLoS. Not surprisingly, many refused. That’s when Michael started pestering Jonathan. “I knew if I couldn’t convince my own brother to do it, that was a bad sign,” he recalls.

He chose an inopportune moment to broach the subject: the first game of the 2003 divisional play-off series between the A’s and the Red Sox. Hailing from Beantown, the Eisen brothers are Red Sox fanatics. Michael had gotten tickets to the game at the Oakland Coliseum, and Jonathan flew out from Maryland to attend. “I was very animated since it was only a few weeks before the launch of PLoS Biology,” Michael says of their brotherly exchange at the game. “I had recently lost a few papers from friends or colleagues, and I was a bit pushy about it. It didn’t help my sales pitch that the Red Sox blew a late lead and lost in extra innings on Ramon Hernandez’ bases-loaded bunt.”

When it came down to it, Jonathan, who had previously agreed to be listed as a member of PLoS Biology‘s editorial board, just didn’t see what was so wrong with the status quo. To him, it seemed as if plenty of stuff was already available online. “My gut instinct was that open access to publications wasn’t really necessary,” he recalls. There was also the matter of his collaborators. Even if Jonathan changed his mind, that didn’t mean he could change his colleagues’ minds, especially the more junior researchers who would want to pad their résumés by saying they had published in Nature or Science.

In short, Jonathan told his brother no.

The curtain of beads hanging at the entrance to Michael Eisen’s office at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory alerts visitors that there’s a quirky man inside. A stack of beer cans, gathered as collectibles back when he was too young to drink, confirms what the beads hint at. Appearances aside, Eisen is a respected scientist and has the citations to prove it. In the world of science, researchers gauge the success of their papers not by how many people read them, but by how often they are cited by colleagues in their own published work. His 1998 article, “Cluster Analysis and Display of Genome-Wide Expression Patterns,” has been cited 2,500 times — the most ever for a paper in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, he says.

Eisen’s team studies how genes are expressed in different types of tumors, and attempts to unravel the molecular mechanisms by which yeast cells respond to changes in their environment. But the scientist is best known these days for his advocacy of “open access” publishing. “Our detractors often like to accuse us of being … idealistic communists,” he chuckles. In fact, a leader of the opposition refers to the publishing model as “socialized publishing.” Eisen looks over his shoulder at the poster for the Italian Communist Party on his wall: “I know this poster in my office doesn’t help — it’s just aesthetic.”

Eisen’s big revelatory moment came just as scientific publications were first going online in the late 1990s. He was then doing cutting-edge genetics research as a postdoctoral student in the lab of his Stanford University mentor, Patrick Brown. With science publishers making the leap online, Eisen figured he could devise a computer program to cross-reference research data from various online sources, but was stymied by subscribers-only copyright protections. “A lightbulb went off in my head,” he recalls. “I was like, ‘Jesus, this is just ridiculous. ‘”

For Eisen and fellow critics of Big Publishing, the access issue cut to the heart of what science should be versus what it has become. The argument goes like this: The goal of research is to improve our knowledge. It’s a cumulative process in which discovery begets discovery as scientists build on the work of their predecessors. But to unravel the mysteries of life and the cosmos, researchers need access to all available information, and that means journals, the main medium by which scientists communicate. By limiting public access now that electronic distribution is available, the journal industry is effectively working against the larger goals of science.

A key drawback with the current model, according to Eisen and fellow revolutionaries, is that the public is getting double-billed: We pay for basic research up front through government grants and are then charged an arm and a leg to view the results. The National Institutes of Health shells out $24.6 billion annually for biomedical research that winds up being reported in about sixty thousand papers, which publishers then copyright and sell back to universities and research institutions at a premium. For example, a one-year subscription to the journal Nuclear Physics A & B costs UC Berkeley’s library $23,820. That’s the same price as a 2004 Toyota Camry Solara. And these things add up fast: The University of California spends $20 million a year on journal subscriptions.

Eisen likens the publishing industry to a corrupt midwife. “If you were a midwife, you could run a pretty good business,” he says, “in which you delivered a baby and then you took the baby and said you owned it. Then you made the couple pay you to get access to the baby. You could make a lot of money that way, but no one’s going to let you get away with it because it’s insane.”

But this is not necessarily a sane market. UC Santa Barbara economist Ted Bergstrom poses this hypothetical: If a Volvo cost four times as much as a Saab, but the Volvo wasn’t as good, a rational car buyer would get the Saab. That logic doesn’t apply in the academic world. “If one journal costs four times as much as another journal, but the journal wasn’t as good as the other one,” that won’t matter to a university library, Bergstrom says. “Serious institutions are going to buy both of them.”

Perhaps not coincidentally, the numbers — and often, the prices — of available journals have skyrocketed. There are now tens of thousands of academic titles in circulation, and between 1986 and 2002, subscription costs increased at three and a half times the rate of inflation, according to the UC Office of Scholarly Communications.

As a result, libraries have had to cancel less-desirable journals and even cut back on buying books to keep up with the must-have journals and online subscriptions. “It’s not reasonable to expect that our institutions can afford to buy all the materials that are out there,” says Karen Butter, a librarian at UC San Francisco.

With research libraries in crisis mode, faculty members, who seldom pay for journal subscriptions out of their own pockets, have become aware of the peculiar economics afoot and have begun to weigh in on the debate. This has cast a spotlight on the industry’s largest publisher, Amsterdam-based Reed Elsevier.

Elsevier is to open-access advocates what Clear Channel or Rupert Murdoch are to media-monopoly critics: a symbol of all that is wrong with mass communication today. The company’s science and medical unit alone publishes some 1,200 journals, in addition to CD-ROMs and online article databases. Elsevier’s top-performing division in 2003, it exhibited solid growth and boasted profits of $837 million on sales approaching $2.5 billion, an operating margin of nearly 34 percent.

But librarians say even certain not-for-profit societies are part of the problem. Butter notes that scientific societies often subsidize their other activities with revenue from journals they publish. On her list of overpriced titles is Science, the journal of the nonprofit American Association for the Advancement of Science, which bills itself as the “World’s Largest General Scientific Society.” UCSF pays $11,000 annually for its online subscription.

Elsevier and other publishers justify their prices by pointing out that they are printing more pages than ever to accommodate all the new research being done. Marc Brodsky, who chairs the executive council of the professional and scholarly publishers’ division of trade group the Association of American Publishers, says having more papers submitted jacks up the costs of doing business — more editing, more vetting. “You’re not only paying for papers, you’re paying for papers that you don’t see,” he says. “It costs us more money to reject an article than to publish an article.”

For Eisen et al, however, the rise of the Internet and electronic distribution has cast doubt on the big publishers’ justifications. Distribution costs, they argue, should plummet with online delivery, but rather than expanding public access to the archived science literature, journal publishers have adapted by throwing up electronic barriers and making people pay big bucks to get past them. They negotiate multimillion-dollar licensing deals with libraries for online access, and charge individuals as much as $30 in some cases to download a single article — a figure that would quickly become prohibitive to a junior researcher on an academic fishing expedition, or someone with a rare disease looking for articles on the latest treatments.

It was against this backdrop that Eisen and his cartel-busting partners set out on their quest to challenge the way the industry functions. But while they found no shortage of moral support among their peers, they soon discovered that such support doesn’t equate to action, for while scientists grumble aplenty about the dysfunctional world of academic publishing, they are in fact its greatest enablers.

UC Santa Barbara economist Ted Bergstrom served for many years as a “referee” for economics journals, giving them recommendations on which articles to publish. Reviewing an article would take him a full day or more, but it was something he did for free. Then, around five years ago, he learned of the outrageous subscription rates being charged by these journals. “I really got resentful that I was doing this donated work for profiteers,” he recalls.

Bergstrom isn’t the only one. It’s customary for academics to volunteer their time to do such peer reviewing and sometimes even editing for journals. It’s all in the name of furthering higher knowledge. Academic journals, after all, weren’t always a multibillion-dollar business. One science historian refers to the collegial early days of academic journals as a “gentleman’s publishing club.”

For nearly three centuries following the 1665 debut of Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society of London — the father of the modern peer-reviewed journal — science publications were largely put out by universities or nonprofit societies. That began to change after World War II, when the federal government began funding more basic research. With so many new papers being written, the small scientific societies couldn’t keep up.

That’s when commercial interests such as Elsevier stepped in to fill the void. In a response to a Bergstrom paper critical of subscription prices, Joop Dirkmaat, an Elsevier publisher, wrote that “most of the Elsevier journals and other commercial journals mentioned were started at a time when university presses and other ‘not-for-profit’ organizations were not prepared to assume the entrepreneurial risks. Elsevier recognized an opportunity.

“It would be peculiar,” he wrote, “for economists to object to firms earning a profit through risk taking and foresight in an industry that has traditionally had relatively low barriers to entry.”

Though the company might indeed have taken risks, Eisen notes that commercial publishers have built an empire on the backs of scholars who donate their labor. “Journals are dependent entirely on the goodwill of the scientific community,” he says. “If the scientific community decides to stop sending articles to a journal or stop reviewing for them, or stop being their editors, they’d disappear.”

By the fall of 2000, Eisen’s efforts to reform the publishing industry had so far come up short. He did, at least, have two prominent scientists in his camp: his old Stanford mentor Patrick Brown, and Nobel Prize winner Harold Varmus, who served as director of the National Institutes of Health under President Clinton. The trio decided to try and get the scientific community to stop enabling what they considered a dysfunctional system. They circulated an open letter via e-mail asking scientists to boycott any publication — meaning they would not submit papers or act as a referee — that didn’t make the full text of its papers available for free on the Internet within six months of publication. The six-month window, they figured, was a reasonable compromise that would allow publishers to maintain their proprietary claim long enough to make a profit.

The response was overwhelming. More than thirty thousand scientists from around the world signed the petition. To accommodate the volume, Eisen created a Web site, the Public Library of Science (, where people could add their names. The petition was an astounding success. Or so it seemed.

After six months passed with almost no publishers making their articles available for free, few scientists actually boycotted the journals. Eisen had predicted the boycott would create a schism between for-profit and not-for-profit publishers. He’d hoped the not-for-profits would side with the good guys and thus isolate commercial publishers as the forces of evil.

After six months passed with almost no publishers making their articles available for free, few scientists actually boycotted the journals. Eisen had predicted the boycott would create a schism between for-profit and not-for-profit publishers. He’d hoped the not-for-profits would side with the good guys and thus isolate commercial publishers as the forces of evil.

Didn’t happen. “Scientists were left at the end of the day with a choice between publishing in an existing journal or not publishing anywhere,” the researcher says. “The reality is, you can’t do that. Scientists have their careers to deal with, and they have to publish.”

The truth is, scientists did have a choice. There was already a well-known open-access publisher out there, the UK-based BioMed Central, but it didn’t have the kind of rep that got you tenure at Harvard, as Eisen puts it. After the boycott’s failure, Eisen, Brown, and Varmus realized the solution was to become publishers themselves, producing free, stringently peer-reviewed online journals in which any scientist would be proud to publish. “We realized that we had to create a journal that would compete for the best papers, that would establish the kind of snotty, selective reputation” needed for success, he notes with a chuckle.

Ego and prestige have long played a major role in scientific publishing. Prior to the Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society of London, or Phil Trans as those in the know call it, there had been no public registry of discoveries, according to science historian Jean-Claude Guédon, a professor at the University of Montreal. Fights broke out over who “owned” a discovery. Phil Trans not only broadcast new discoveries, it kept intellectual turf battles out of the public eye. And it established itself as “the arbiter of innovations,” Guédon wrote in the October 2001 Association of Research Libraries newsletter. “The multiplication of printed copies and their dissemination throughout Europe ensured the validity of the claim. … Through peer review, it could confer a form of intellectual nobility upon individuals. Thus was established the game of science, whereby giving away what one had discovered was paradoxically the best way to ensure one’s intellectual ownership of it. … A complex mix of excellence and elitism ensued that has accompanied science ever since.”

Over time, the link between publishing and career success solidified — hence the axiom “publish or perish.” Through the years, of course, some journals developed better reputations than others, and publishing in the big-brand journals promised more lucrative career rewards.

The problem with that system, in Eisen’s view, is that scholars believe they got tenure or a great job because they had a paper in Nature or Science. They got those gigs, he says, because they did great science, and great science will “rise to the top” regardless of whether it’s published in Nature or, well, PLoS Biology. But persuading colleagues on that point is a hard sell. “The mentality that you have to publish your papers in the best possible journal in order to advance your career or get tenure or whatever, that mentality is deeply entrenched in the scientific community,” Eisen says.

To give PLoS the requisite branding, Eisen and his partners took a page from the commercial publishers by recruiting some of the top names in the business. They persuaded Lee Hartwell and Richard Roberts, both winners of the Nobel Prize for medicine, to lend their names to the editorial board of PLoS Biology, and another Nobelist, Joseph Goldstein, for the board of PLoS Medicine, a new journal set to debut next month. In January 2003 they lured Vivian Siegel, the editor of Cell, a top-shelf Elsevier product, as the new executive director of PLoS. They also brought on editors from other prominent publications, such as Barbara Cohen, former editor of Nature Genetics.

Eisen, Brown, and Varmus were able to attract such big names in part by appealing to their recruits’ higher scientific calling: For knowledge to progress, information needs to be freely available and not hoarded by publishers. “As a scientist, I believe the business we are in is communicating science,” Cohen explains. “Opening it up as much as possible was attractive to me.”

But it took more than noble intentions to snag such talent. The PLoS founders needed money — a lot of it. Eisen says the trio drew up a business plan with the hope of securing seed funding from a foundation. The plan was to print a regular glossy color magazine like Science or Nature, with science news and hardcore research papers, but also research summaries that would translate the highly technical papers into lay terms — making PLoS a sort of hybrid between Science and Scientific American. Although the monthly journal would be free online, libraries, researchers, and lay readers could subscribe to the print version at the eminently reasonable rate of $160 per year.

The model presented a conundrum, though. Since PLoS wasn’t going to rely on pricey subscriptions and online licensing fees, Eisen would have to show potential benefactors how the nonprofit could survive on its own. Even without a print version, after all, a science journal incurs substantial costs for space, equipment, salaries, production, and general overhead — and here PLoS was proposing hard-copy publications as well.

The new publishers swiped a page from BioMed Central’s model in which the scientists themselves must pay to cover publication costs — the current figure of $1,500, they note, may change as the true cost per article becomes more apparent. Eisen knew the fee would be the most controversial element of the proposal. Still, he felt it made perfect sense. Taxpayers were already paying billions for the research via NIH grants, and then paying again for high-priced subscriptions that limited public access to the results. The PLoS founders proposed that researchers simply write the publishing fees into their grant proposals — and on the other end, scientists and lay readers alike could access the articles for free.

The trio shopped their proposal to the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation, the family charity established by the founder of Intel. The foundation bit, and the trio walked away with a $9 million grant to establish PLoS. “They had a lot of enthusiasm for the idea,” Eisen recalls. “We showed them that this was ultimately going to be a self-sustaining enterprise.”

By October 2003, there was a lot of buzz about the debut of the new open-access “prestige” journal, PLoS Biology. The cover of the first issue touted a paper involving DNA analysis of Borneo elephants, which are genetically distinct from other Asian elephants. Among the authors — who covered topics from diabetes genetics to gene expression in malaria to mathematical modeling of chemical communication between cells — were scientists from prestigious research universities including Princeton, Cambridge, UC San Francisco, Stanford, and Harvard Medical School. There was also a message from the founders: “Today, with the launch of PLoS Biology, we take on a new role as publishers, to demonstrate that high-quality journals can flourish without charging access.”

The three made a convincing pitch: They cited, for instance, how the establishment of a central, open repository for DNA sequences during the 1980s has led to innovations that have greatly advanced our understanding of molecular genetics. “Imagine how impoverished biology and medicine would be today if published DNA sequences were treated like virtually every other kind of research publication — with no comprehensive database searches and no ability to freely download, reorganize, and reanalyze sequences,” they wrote. “Now imagine the possibilities if the same creative explosion … were to occur for the much larger body of published scientific results.”

The publishers also argued that asking research sponsors to cover publication costs up front was a no-brainer. Grant-givers already pay these costs, they noted, via the elevated licensing and subscription fees researchers and institutions typically include in their grant proposals and budget requests.

Eisen felt the journal had made a solid debut, but he was still nervous. After all, his own brother had refused to run a paper in PLoS, and Eisen took that as a bad sign. But on the day PLoS launched online, its Web site was overwhelmed with so many hits that its server crashed. The science world, clearly, was paying attention.

Since that first incredible day, the publishers’ Web servers have yet to again crash from overactivity. Still, the Public Library of Science’s first year has been, by all appearances, a success. PLoS Biology scored a major coup in its second issue: A Duke neurobiologist ran his paper on how lab monkeys bearing brain implants had learned to control robotic arms with, as the Associated Press put it, their thoughts. The researchers considered it a big step toward providing paralyzed people with brain-controlled prosthetic limbs. The New York Times gushed that the paper would have been “a shoo-in for acceptance in premier journals like Nature or Science.”

Despite such victories, there are still plenty of doubters out there. Traditional publishers express skepticism as to whether PLoS and its author-pays business model can maintain high-quality science in its journals. “We don’t know what the implications are or what bias is in the publishing system if the author is paying and not the reader,” argues Marc Brodsky of the Association of American Publishers. “Right now, there’s some selectivity, and the publisher has to publish quality stuff or no one’s going to buy it. If the author is going to pay, where is the quality screen going to be? Just on, well, who pays?”

Eisen disputes the notion that PLoS is a vanity press for scientists. The review process is thorough and stringent, he says. In fact, he personally has had two papers rejected by the PLoS review board.

The fledgling publisher, meanwhile, has plenty of fans out there rooting for the success of its journals, and open-access publishing in general. One is Dr. Lawrence Pitts, a professor of neurosurgery at UCSF. Pitts is chairing the new Academic Council Special Committee on Scholarly Communication, a thirteen-member group of UC academics and librarians looking at long-term solutions to budget-busting subscription rates. He says scholars are becoming increasingly aware of the economic perversions of the publishing business and tell him, “‘I’m not here to make money for Elsevier. ‘” He points to a boycott of Elsevier’s Cell led last fall by two UCSF researchers fed up with the system. The boycott helped university negotiators win a major concession earlier this year, when Elsevier agreed to a five-year deal that cuts UC’s annual toll for the publisher’s online and print journals from $10.3 million to $7.7 million. Now UC bookworms are in heated talks with Blackwell Publishing, another for-profit journal publisher, to lower its rates.

With all the stir about open access, some traditional publishers are rethinking their options. Another idea coming into vogue, a sort of compromise between the conventional and PLoS models, is the “author chooses” concept, in which a researcher can voluntarily pay to make his paper freely available online. That model is being “explored” by several journals, including Physiological Genomics, according to an NIH report.

It’s still too early to tell whether PLoS has a sustainable business model. Critics say the real test for the young publisher will come after its $9 million grant runs out. “PLoS is highly subsidized,” Brodsky says. “They are not making it on their $1,500-an-article charge yet.” Another publisher has told science reporters that operating on the PLoS model would cost him $10,000 per article.

Ever the salesman, Eisen doesn’t let the criticism get him down. He’s thrilled, in fact: PLoS Biology has been more successful than he ever expected. And next month the publisher will release its second title, PLoS Medicine. Slowly but surely, Eisen feels like he’s changing people’s minds in the science world — his brother’s, for one.

Jonathan, in a big-time epiphany at a scientific meeting, finally came around and published his paper on the male-hating bacteria in PLoS Biology. What’s more, he decreed that his lab would thenceforth publish only in journals that provide free public access to the data.

The wholehearted sibling conversion, of course, was no guarantee that PLoS would survive, but for Michael Eisen, it was a very, very good sign.

The Politicians Weigh In

Science journals battle an NIH proposal that calls for free access to federally funded research.

In the battle with big business over access to publicly funded research articles, Berkeley scientist Michael Eisen and his Public Library of Science have some unlikely allies: conservative Republicans. Meanwhile, representing the publishing industry against government intervention is Pat Schroeder, a former liberal congresswoman.

Earlier this month, the National Institutes of Health, citing the skyrocketing costs of journal subscriptions, announced its intention to make all NIH-funded research articles freely available to the public six months after publication. The articles would be posted on the National Library of Medicine’s Internet repository, PubMed Central (, launched by PLoS cofounder Harold Varmus when he headed the NIH under President Clinton.

The plan faces fierce opposition from the Association of American Publishers (AAP), a trade group that Schroeder serves as president. Its members, which include both commercial and nonprofit journal publishers, have complained it could put them out of business because they would lose thousands of subscribers.

But industry critics have hailed the move as a welcome change. Among them are patients’ rights groups such as the Genetic Alliance, which represents people with inherited conditions. In a letter to a House subcommittee, alliance president Sharon Terry wrote: “This access is critical for the thousands [with] rare diseases — clinicians are unable to keep up with information on 6,000 rare diseases, and patients must be the bridge to new knowledge.”

The new NIH policy got off the ground with the help of two conservative congressmen, Ralph Regula of Ohio and Ernie Istook of Oklahoma, who inserted language championing public access into an appropriations report in May. “The people who are so much against socialized medicine are all for socialized publishing,” chides Marc Brodsky, executive council chair of the AAP’s division of professional and scholarly publishing.

Open-access advocate Eisen doesn’t view this fight as an instance of strange bedfellows. Underlying the whole debate, he notes, is a taxpayers’ rights issue. The NIH is the largest backer of biomedical research in the world; each year it funds $24.6 billion in basic research that produces approximately sixty thousand research articles. The papers are typically copyrighted by journal publishers, who then turn around and charge subscription fees that can run tens of thousands of dollars, while nonsubscribers can be charged as much as thirty dollars to download a single article. “I think it is a very simple proposition,” Regula said on the House floor this month. “NIH, or the taxpayer, pays for the research, even pays for the journals, and should be able to share the results with the taxpaying public. Our investment in research is not well served by a process that limits taxpayer access instead of expanding it.”

The plan’s foes say the debate has been mislabeled as a public-access issue. They point out that many publishers, such as the New England Journal of Medicine, already make their articles public after six months. In June, Elsevier, the world’s largest academic publisher, announced that it would start allowing authors to post full-text versions of their articles on their own personal or institutional Web sites — a concession that would increase public access, but with nowhere near the searchability and convenience of a central database such as PubMed Central.

Despite the trend toward increased access, Brodsky says he and other publishers don’t want the government to make the rules. “There’s more information available on the Web, more being used now, and more being read than ever before in history, and some people have to pay for it, and for some libraries there’s a financial drain,” he says. “But we’re evolving a market system that’s working extremely well. And now we’re going to substitute a system where the government says, ‘Well, we’re going to put these journals at economic risk because the government is going to try to put these things up for free. ‘”

And why shouldn’t it, Eisen retorts. “Does Brodsky really think that the public have no right to expect access to work they funded?” the researcher says. “That scientists are simply entitled to government funding without any responsibility to the public that supports them?”

Brodsky points out that the government subsidizes other commercial activities where the public is charged for something value-added. “For example,” he says, “when we get medical advances that come out of NIH-funded research, we have to pay for the drugs.”

The “value-added” in this case would include the peer-review process by which scholars vet submissions to make sure the work that appears in a given journal is sound and rigorous. The NIH proposal would require that the peer-reviewed, published version be posted to PubMed Central. However, as Eisen and others point out, scientists usually do peer-review for free.

Susan Spilka, communications director for John Wiley & Sons, one of the largest commercial journal publishers, says the high subscription costs cited by the NIH need to be put into a broader context. With the Internet, institutions now have access to hundreds of titles, which are easier to access than ever, she argues, and prices have actually gone down on a per-access basis. “What’s really being considered by [the NIH] is not a question of access, but of who should pay for the system,” she says.

Spilka and other critics say the government is effectively biasing the system to use the PLoS business model in which authors pay a $1,500 publication fee — most likely covered by government grants — after which, upon publication, their articles become freely available to the online public. This author-pays model, they say, is largely untested. They point out that ultimate costs to authors and thus government funders might actually be a lot more than $1,500, since PLoS is buoyed by a $9 million foundation grant. “It may work,” Brodsky says of PLoS. “It’s been around for almost a year; we’ll see. The other journals have been around for a hundred years and they seem to be working very well.”


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