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Front Page

Online Journal Opens Access to Scientific Literature

The open-access movement in scientific publishing got a big boost this month with the launch of the free online journal PLoS Biology (www.publiclibraryofscience.org select PLoS Biology). This monthly, peer-reviewed journal is the first publishing venture from the San Francisco-based Public Library of Science (PLoS), which began three years ago as a grassroots organization of scientists advocating free and unrestricted access to the scientific literature.

The first issue has three studies by HMS faculty, including one led by Marc Kirschner, chair of the new Department of Systems Biology and a member of the journal's editorial board. Kirschner and co-authors describe a mathematical model for understanding the quantitative relationships among signaling proteins.

"Unlimited access to scientific research will speed discoveries and medical advances, as it has in the cases of the Human Genome Project and SARS."

--Harold Varmus

Kirschner expects that open-access publications will be key to future advances in science. He cited an economic analysis of scientific research publishing by the Wellcome Trust that found the dominance of for-profit publishers is hindering the progress of science since "journal subscriptions ... present a major obstacle to the timely and comprehensive sharing and use of scientific information." The Wellcome Trust and the Howard Hughes Medical Institute both announced recently that they will earmark a portion of their grant funds to pay open-access publication fees.

Due to high subscription costs, many people and academic institutions in less wealthy areas of the U.S. lack the funds to subscribe to thousands of journals. In the case of federally funded research, Kirschner said, this means they are unfairly denied access to the results of research funded by their tax dollars. And in poorer countries, lack of access to research findings is even more of a problem.

Speed Through Access

"Unlimited access to scientific research will speed discoveries and medical advances, as it has in the cases of the Human Genome Project and SARS," said PLoS cofounder and chairman of the board Harold Varmus, president of Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center and former director of the National Institutes of Health. "The speed at which these projects advanced science and, more importantly, saved lives, is a testament to the equation that drives the Public Library of Science--multiply knowledge by access and you can really accelerate progress."

With the rapid pace of biomedical research, Kirschner added, it is increasingly important for scientists to keep up with developments both within and outside their own fields of specialization. To reach a wider audience, each primary research paper in PLoS Biology is accompanied by a synopsis written for nonspecialist readers.

Countway librarian Judith Messerle said, "I'm very pleased that PLoS Biology is up and running. The medical library community has been eagerly awaiting this day. This could be the beginning of a culture shift in scholarly publication. PLoS Biology has strong editorial leadership and the support of major scientific leaders."

A Scientific Plunge

Kirschner said the biggest challenge faced by the open-access movement will be getting scientists to publish their most important work in the fledgling free journals.

"It's a classic case of the 'Prisoner's Dilemma,'" pitting individual interests against the collective good, he said. Currently, scientists reap the greatest individual rewards from publishing in prestigious journals like Science, Nature, or Cell. But if many scientists began sending their best papers to open-access journals like PLoS Biology, the prestige of these would rise, and the entire community would benefit from greater access.

"I think we've got a very good chance" for success, he said. "We've got a great editorial board, good quality publishing, and a great ethical basis" for the venture.

Messerle agreed. "Only through efforts like PLoS will society be able to ensure that content is widely accessible to the world of scientists, not just those who can afford the for-profit journals. And only the actions of individual authors deciding where to publish their papers will move the cultural balance point," she said. "We will need more journals like this to be truly successful. But PLoS Biology is a very strong step forward."

Said PLoS executive director Vivian Siegel, "Our goal is to make the scientific and medical literature a freely accessible resource. But the literature is huge, and we cannot do it all by ourselves. Using the success of our own journals as a template, we hope to encourage other publishers to adopt the open-access model."

--Tom Reynolds