UC Professor Advocates Free Means of Publication

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Publishers of scientific journals are often the gatekeepers of information, but these gates will soon be forced open if UC Berkeley genetics professor Mike Eisen has his way.

Public Library of Science (PLoS), created by Eisen and Patrick Brown of the Stanford Medical School, is an organization of scientists dedicated to the free and accessible circulation of scientific and medical literature.

The PLoS leadership hopes to archive and distribute published articles through international online public libraries by early 2003.

This approach differs from the current system of scientific publication in two major aspects. It allows scientists to maintain the copyright to their articles and it allows immediate access to information online, without requiring a subscription fee.

"Scientific literature is much more valuable to the scientific community and to the public if it is publicly available," Eisen said. "(The current) model is a real impediment to the optimal functioning of the scientific community."

Eisen compares the current publishing model to a midwife that claims ownership of a baby.

"The much more valid business model that has evolved in midwifery has been, they play an important role in the process and you pay them for that, and at the end of the day the baby is yours," Eisen said.

Many scientific researchers agree with Eisen's viewpoint.

"The main point of publication in science is to further science," said Paul Spellman, a post-doctoral scientist at the Lawrence Berkeley Lab. "Copyright journals inhibit science in three key ways. (They) prevent the data mining of the scientific literature, prevent poor researchers from getting access to information, (and) waste resources from the research budgets of universities."

In an attempt to overcome the restrictions of copyrights and subscription fees on scientific research, Eisen and Brown circulated an open letter in late 2000. This letter urged publishers to allow articles to be distributed freely by online public libraries of science, such as PubMed Central.

Researchers were asked to submit their work only to the journals that agreed with the terms of the letter.

While the reaction to this letter in the publishing world was lukewarm, an overwhelming number of people in the scientific community responded positively. The letter has currently been signed by 30,640 people in 182 countries.

Paul Spellman and UC Berkeley genetics professor Gerald Rubin chose to publish their recent research in the Journal of Biology, one of the few magazines to accept Eisen's terms.

"Gerry and I chose Journal of Biology precisely because we felt it was time to support PLoS," Spellman said.

No scientific publishers contacted by The Daily Californian were able to comment regarding PLoS. However, many publishers have been quoted as criticizing PLoS from a business perspective.

"Everybody would like to have everything available, all the time, and preferably for free. That's a general human trait, but I'm not sure the business model is realistic," said Derk Haank, head of publisher Elsevier Science, in an interview with Guardian Unlimited.

"I'm not ashamed to make a profit. I would only be ashamed if people were saying I was delivering a lousy service."

Reed-Elsevier, the parent company of Elsevier Science, made a profit of approximately $390 million from its science and medical publishings in the year 2000.

Eisen insists that he recognizes that production of scientific literature is not free, but claims that the advent of the internet is cause for a change of policy.

Historically, giving publishers ownership of an article ensured that the journal would be successful as possible. Printing and distributing the information required an enormous investment, and granting copyright to the journal made certain that scientists would not be undercut by someone who was taking their work and selling it for a cheaper cost.

Today, the ease and efficiency with which the internet distributes information has changed the fundamental principles of the print-distribution model, Eisen said.

"It costs basically nothing to distribute a copy of a scientific article on the internet. Almost all of the costs in publishing today are costs involved in producing the first finished copy of the work," Eisen said.

"The journals have taken the economic model of print distribution and grounded it onto the electronic distribution model. When they now charge the University of California a subscription fee to access their journal they are basically charging us for something that costs them nothing."

Eisen believes that the costs of writing scientific articles should be covered by the organizations that support the research itself. Until electronic databases of articles become freely available, he has formulated an intermediate, six-month lease plan.

Recent articles would be not be placed in the database until six months after their release. Scientists who needed access prior to that would pay a subscription fee.

The ability to perform large scale searching within reports and interconnect information from different journals could benefit the scientific world as well as the general public.

During the course of his genomic research, Eisen often requires access to previous results. Difficulty finding and searching these articles impeded Eisen's work and inspired the development of PLoS.

Others would be able to use PLoS to access medical literature, a necessity as individuals are being asked to monitor their own healthcare to increasing extents, Eisen said. Frequently, it is the public's tax dollars that funded the research.

"The important thing is you should never have to pay to use the literature, and you should never have to ask anybody's permission to use the literature. It belongs to the public," Eisen said.


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