Intro to Open Access: The Public Library of Science

Research scientists live for just one thing—research. Their L word is laboratory not library. Secondary research, looking for articles in their area of specialization, takes a back seat to the thrill of primary research. Yet, every scientist knows that publishing is intrinsic to the research process. Not only do they want to publish their research findings, they also want to ensure that their research is unique and significant. It's the latter that involves library research. Whether said library is a physical entity or electronic—or, in many cases, a blending of the two—the challenge facing scientists is being able to read the full text of relevant articles without spending their entire research budget in the process.

Until recently, the publishing models in science, technology, and medicine—the STM market—have been twofold. You published your research results either in a journal sponsored by a professional association or in one produced by a for-profit company. The biggest names in the latter category are Elsevier, Wolters Kluwer, Blackwells, and BertelsmannSpringer with subscription prices for their specialized scientific journals as high as thousands of dollars. Even professional associations' journals can be expensive, although most bear more modest price tags. Still, pricing sets up a conflict between publishers and librarians.

Enter the Public Library of Science (PLoS). Conceived by Nobel Laureate Harold Varnum, former head of the U.S. National Institutes of Health and presently head of Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center; Patrick O. Brown, a Stanford professor of Genomics; and Michael Eisen, a University of California, Berkeley, biologist, PLoS advocates open access to scientific literature. Open access means scientific papers are available online, free of charge, with no restrictions on access or use. Oh, and one minor detail. Once your paper is accepted, you owe PLoS $1,500. That might sound outrageous outside the scientific community, but authors must pay to publish under the other two models as well—plus they give up their copyright and frequently discover their library can't afford a subscription to the journal in which they've published.

Let's be clear on one thing: This is not your neighborhood public library. There are no story hours, no fiction section, and no Carnegie structure. It isn't really a library at all; it's a publishing house. Funded by a $9 million grant from the Gordon and Better Moore Foundation, PLoS has hired editorial talent away from its corporate competitors, most notably Vivien Siegel from Cell.

Siegel will edit PLoS' first journal, PLoS Biology, due out in October 2003 (PLoS Medicine will follow) and one article from PLoS Biology is already online. "The Transcriptome of the Intraerythrocytic Developmental Cycle of Plasmodium falciparvum" may not sound like a best-seller, but its conclusions about the DNA of the parasite responsible for malaria have attracted serious attention in the scientific community.

What does PLoS and open access mean to the content industry? First, it recognizes that electronic content trumps older publishing models. This will likely force traditional publishing to re-evaluate its methodologies. Second, it strikes a middle ground between traditional peer-reviewed scientific publishing and self-publishing. Copyright offers another intriguing issue. The U.S. government has noticed the open-access movement: Rep. Martin Sabo introduced a bill, HR2613, in June 2003 to "exclude from copyright protection works resulting from scientific research substantially funded by the Federal government," which presently sits in the House Committee on the Judiciary. Should this become law, it will further alter the economics of traditional publishing, tilting the balance toward open access and away from commercial publishers.

PLoS' overall aim is to place all scientific information in the public domain, unfettered by today's copyright and commercial publishing economic restrictions. Oddly, PLoS talks about copyright holders when it defines open access. But when copyright holders agree to "grant to all users a free, irrevocable, worldwide, perpetual right of access to, and a license to copy, use, distribute, transmit and display the work publicly and to make and distribute derivative works," it's hard to see what types of rights the copyright holder retains. Will open access sound a death knell for scientific journal publishers? It's hard to say at this point, with PLoS' debut Biology not yet published. What's clear is that the economics of publishing have been radically changed by the Internet and changes keep on coming.