[linux-elitists] New Premise in Science: Get the Word Out Quickly, Online (fwd)

Eugen Leitl eugen@leitl.org
Tue Dec 17 07:14:10 PST 2002

---------- Forwarded message ----------
Date: Tue, 17 Dec 2002 15:45:09 +0100
From: Eugen Leitl <eugen@LEITL.ORG>
Subject: New Premise in Science: Get the Word Out Quickly, Online


New Premise in Science: Get the Word Out Quickly, Online

A group of prominent scientists is mounting an electronic challenge to the
leading scientific journals, accusing them of holding back the progress of
science by restricting online access to their articles so they can reap
higher profits.

Supported by a $9 million grant from the Gordon and Betty Moore
Foundation, the scientists say that this week they will announce the
creation of two peer-reviewed online journals on biology and medicine,
with the goal of cornering the best scientific papers and immediately
depositing them in the public domain.

By providing a highly visible alternative to what they view as an outmoded
system of distributing information, the founders hope science itself will
be transformed. The two journals are the first of what they envision as a
vast electronic library in which no one has to pay dues or seek permission
to read, copy or use the collective product of the world's academic

"The written record is the lifeblood of science," said Dr. Harold E.
Varmus, a Nobel laureate in medicine who is serving as the chairman of the
new nonprofit publisher. "Our ability to build on the old to discover the
new is all based on the way we disseminate our results."

By contrast, established journals like Science and Nature charge steep
annual subscription fees and bar access to their online editions to
nonsubscribers, although Science recently began providing free electronic
access to articles a year after publication.

The new publishing venture, Public Library of Science, is an outgrowth of
several years of friction between scientists and the journals over who
should control access to scientific literature in the electronic age. For
most scientists, who typically assign their copyright to the journals for
no compensation, the main goal is to distribute their work as widely as

Academic publishers argue that if they made the articles more widely
available they would lose the subscription revenue they need to ensure the
quality of the editorial process. Far from holding back science, they say,
the journals have played a crucial role in its advancement as a trusted
repository of significant discovery.

"We have very high standards, and it is somewhat costly," said Dr. Donald
Kennedy, the editor of Science. "We're dealing in a market whether we like
it or not."

Science estimates that 800,000 people read the magazine electronically
now, compared with 140,000 readers of the print version. Given the number
of downloads at universities like Harvard and Stanford, which buy site
licenses for about $5,000 a year, the magazine says people are reading
articles for only a few cents each.

In many cases even such small per-article charges to access a digital
database can make for substantial income. The Dutch-British conglomerate
Reed Elsevier Group, the world's largest academic publisher, posted a 30
percent profit last year on its science publishing activities. Science
took in $34 million last year on advertising alone.

But supporters of the Public Library of Science say the point is not how
much money the journals make, but their monopoly control over literature
that should belong to the public.

"We would be perfectly happy for them to have huge profit margins
providing that in exchange for all this money we're giving them we got to
own the literature and the literature did not belong to them," said Dr.
Michael B. Eisen, a biologist at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory and
the University of California, and a founder of the Public Library of

When scientists relied on print-and-paper journals to distribute their
work, the Library's supporters argue, it made sense to charge for access,
since each copy represented an additional expense. But they say that at a
time when the Internet has reduced distribution costs to almost zero, a
system that grants journals exclusive rights over distribution is no
longer necessary.

By publishing on the Internet and forgoing any profits, the new venture
says it is now possible to maintain a high-quality journal without
charging subscription fees.

Instead, the new journals hope institutions that finance research will
come to regard publishing as part of the cost. The journals will initially
ask most authors to pay about $1,500 per article, for exposure to a wider
potential audience and a much faster turnaround time.

The library's founders agree that its success will depend largely on
whether leading scholars are willing to forsake the certain status of
publishing in the established journals to support the principle of science
as a public resource. In a profession where publishing in a top journal is
often crucial to success and grant money, that may be a difficult task.

"I'd be happy to forswear publishing in any of those journals, but I'm not
in a position where I need a job," said Dr. Marc Kirschner, chairman of
the cell biology department at Harvard Medical School and a member of the
electronic library's editorial board. "The difficulty will be getting over
this hump from the point where people say, `Why should I risk it?' to
where they don't see it as a risk."

In that regard, the Howard Hughes Medical Institute . the nonprofit
institute whose $11 billion endowment makes it a leading supporter of
medical research . has emerged as a powerful ally. Dr. Thomas R. Cech, the
institute's president, has publicly endorsed the library's goals and
promised to cover its investigators' extra costs of publishing in the new

As for other researchers, "people will want to be associated with this
because it is such a good deed," said another member of the library's
editorial board, Dr. Nicholas R. Cozzarelli, editor of The Proceedings of
the National Academy of Sciences.

Unfettered access to the literature, library supporters say, would
eliminate unnecessary duplication and allow doctors in poor countries,
scientists at budget-conscious institutions, high school students, cancer
patients and anyone else who could not afford subscriptions to benefit
from existing research and add to it.

Moreover, they say, the taxpayers, who spend nearly $40 billion a year on
biomedical research, should not have to pay again . or wait some
unspecified period . to be able to search for and see the results

But Derk Haank, chairman of Elsevier Science, whose 1,500 journals include
Cell, says such criticism is misguided. Elsevier, he says, is offering
broader access to its electronic databases to the institutions that want
it for far less than the cost of subscribing to dozens of paper journals.
"It sounds very sympathetic to say this should be available to the
public," he said. "But this kind of material is only used by experts."

Still, in addition to making data available to more people sooner, the
electronic library's founders argue that the research itself becomes more
valuable when it is not walled off by copyrights and Balkanized in
separate electronic databases. They envision the sprouting of a kind of
cyber neural network, where all of scientific knowledge can be searched,
sorted and grafted with a fluidity that will speed discovery.

Under the library's editorial policy, any data can be integrated into new
work as long as the original author is credited appropriately. The model
is inspired by GenBank, the central repository of DNA sequences whose open
access policy has driven much of the progress in genomics and
biotechnology of the last decade.

The library's roots can be traced to Dr. Patrick O. Brown's frustration at
the barriers to literature he needed for research at his genetics
laboratory at the Stanford University School of Medicine in 1998. "The
information I wanted was information scientists had published with the
goal of making it available to all their colleagues," he said. "And I
couldn't get it readily because of the way the system was organized."

Dr. Varmus, then director of the National Institutes for Health, talked
with Dr. Brown in January 1999 and decided to pay for a Web site that
would provide free access to peer-reviewed scientific literature.
PubMedCentral (www.pubmedcentral.gov) was opened the next year.

By a year later, however, only a handful of journals had decided to
participate in the government archive. In an effort to whip up enthusiasm,
Drs. Varmus, Brown and Eisen began circulating an open letter to the
journals, asking them to place their articles in a free online database.

The petition quickly garnered 30,000 signers around the world, including
several Nobel laureates, who promised to publish their work only in
journals that complied with their demand. But almost none did.

That is when Dr. Varmus and his colleagues became convinced that they
needed to raise money to start their own publication. After being rejected
by several traditional science research foundations, the scientists found
a sympathetic ear at the Silicon Valley foundation whose benefactor, Dr.
Gordon E. Moore, was the co-founder of Intel Corporation.

"Scientists are a conservative bunch," said Dr. Edward Penhoet, the
foundation's senior director for science. "In the short term they'll still
be publishing in Cell and other places. But in the long term, I think this
has the potential to dramatically facilitate science."

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