Public Library of Science

Glenn Otis Brown, September 1st, 2005

The Public Library of Science is a nonprofit organization dedicated to making the world’s scientific and medical literature a freely available public resource. PLoS emerged in October 2000 through the effort of three dynamic and highly respected scientists: Nobel Laureate and former head of the National Institutes of Health Harold Varmus, molecular biologist Pat Brown of Stanford University, and biologist Michael Eisen of Lawrence Berkeley National Lab and UC Berkeley. This trio’s dream, as the L.A. Times put it, is to build “a world in which the many thousands of scientific journals . . . are placed in an electronic library open to the public.”

This week, PLoS moved closer to realizing this dream with the release of its first open access publication: PLoS Biology, a world-class, peer-reviewed scientific journal.

We had the opportunity to speak with Michael Eisen recently about the launch of PLoS Biology, its publication under a Creative Commons license, and its promise to transform open access models, the scientific community, and the world.

featured Public Library of Science work
PLoS Biology, Volume 1 Number 1
Attribution 1.0
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Creative Commons: How did PLoS come into existence?

Michael Eisen: Science depends on the free flow of ideas and information. In the late ’90s most of the research journals that scientists used to communicate with each other moved online. The technological change offered scientists myriad opportunities to expand and improve the ways we use scientific literature, and made it possible to bring our treasury of scientific information available to a much wider audience.

We grew increasingly frustrated that the publishers of scientific journals were blocking these advances by applying to their online journals business models developed for print publication — thus unnecessarily and unfairly restricting access to subscribers. We formed PLoS to promote and implement a better model for scientific publishing that offers anyone free and unrestricted access to scientific literature and facilitates the creative use of the knowledge it contains.

CC: What’s the ultimate goal of the organization?

ME: Our goal is to see that every scientific and medical research publication is available free of charge for anyone to read, use, incorporate in databases, redistribute, etc. To do this we want to shift how the publishers are paid for the role they play in communicating scientific ideas and discoveries — to switch from a model in which publishers are given permanent, exclusive control over the scientific literature and allowed to charge for access to a model in which the literature is effectively placed in the public domain and publishers are paid a fair price for the service they provide in getting the literature there.

CC: Have you encountered any resistance from the scientific community?

ME: Most scientists agree strongly with the general principles we are advocating. What remains a challenge is convincing them that they should forego publishing in established journals to support our new model. Publication records play a major role in landing jobs, getting grants, and achieving tenure, and the more prestigious the journal, the better it looks on your resumé. Many scientists who support what we are doing perceive publishing in a new journal — no matter how much they agree with its principles — as a risky career move. This is why we have put a tremendous amount of energy into creating an open access journal — PLoS Biology — with the highest editorial and production standards that publishes outstanding works from all areas of biology. Once we have established PLoS Biology as a prestigious journal scientists will no longer feel they have to choose between what is right for them and what is right for science. They will get both in one place.

CC: What do you see as your role in changing the landscape of scientific journal publishing?

ME: We’ve all put a tremendous amount of time, effort, and energy into promoting the idea and importance of open access, and gathering support within the scientific community, publishing world, and public. Now we want to make it work. I publish the work from my lab only in open access journals. As a young scientist who is still not tenured, I think this serves as a role model for students and other scientists to see that you can have a successful science career without publishing your papers in Science, Nature, Cell or other prominent, fee-for-access journals.

CC: What are the benefits of open access scientific journals?

ME: First, if we succeed, everyone who has access to a computer and an Internet connection will have unlimited access to our living treasury of scientific and medical knowledge. This will be an invaluable resource for science education, will lead to more informed healthcare decisions by doctors and patients, and will level the playing field for scientists at small or less wealthy institutions and in the developing world by ensuring that no one will be unable to read an important paper just because his or her institution does not subscribe to a particular journal. Open access will also enable scientists to begin transforming scientific literature into something far more useful than the electronic equivalent of millions of individual articles in rows of journals on library shelves. The ability to search, in an instant, an entire scientific library for particular terms or concepts, for methods, data, and images — and instantly retrieve the results — is only the beginning. Freeing the information in scientific literature from the fixed sequence of pages and the arbitrary boundaries drawn by journals or publishers — the electronic vestiges of paper publication — opens up myriad new possibilities for navigating, integrating, “mining,” annotating, and mapping connections in the high-dimensional space of scientific knowledge.

We hope to do for scientific literature what freely available archives of DNA sequences did for genetics. With great foresight, it was decided in the early 1980s that published DNA sequences should be deposited in a central repository, in a common format, where they could be freely accessed and used by anyone. Simply giving scientists free and unrestricted access to the raw sequences led them to develop the powerful methods, tools, and resources that have made the whole much greater than the sum of the individual sequences. If we succeed, we expect an even bigger creative explosion to be fueled by open access to the much larger body of published scientific results.

CC: Have you encountered any resistance from traditional journal publishers?

ME: A ton. Traditional publishers have not led the open access movement in any way. With a few notable exceptions, they’ve firmly resisted it. Scientific publishing as it exists today is an extremely lucrative business, and many publishers have placed their own narrow profit motive ahead of the good of the scientific community and the public. Even some nonprofits have stubbornly clung to the old publishing model to protect journal revenues that fund other activities. A major goal of PLoS is to prove to even the most reluctant publisher that open access is a viable way of publishing scientific journals and a viable economic model. Once this happens I suspect many publishers will respond positively either on their own or in response to the market pressure of scientists supporting the open access model.

CC: How broad-based is the open access movement among the scientific community?

ME: It depends on how you measure it. In terms of people who know about and support open access it’s a broad movement. Over 30,000 people signed an open letter supporting PLoS. Although only about five percent of the papers published this year will be in journals offering something approximating open access, the numbers are rising quickly and open access is starting to take off.

CC: Do you see any parallels between access issues in scientific publishing and copyright in other areas?

ME: Authors of scientific papers assigning copyright to journals, thereby giving publishers ownership of scientific literature, is a central problem in scientific publishing today. The monopoly control enjoyed by publishers over specific publications allows them to charge exorbitant access fees to individuals and institutions that need access to this material — which they cannot get anywhere else.

Publishers often try to cast PLoS as being no different than file-sharers. While it is true that PLoS and groups like Creative Commons and the EFF are involved in trying to reform copyright, the peculiar nature of scientific publishing places PLoS largely above this fray. In the creative arts, copyright protects the rights of content producers who need to make money from their song, book, or film, and there is a fundamental tension between the producer’s interest to profit from their labor and the consumers’ desire to get it as cheaply as possible.

In scientific publishing this tension is nonexistent. First, the producers and consumers of information are largely the same people. And, second, scientists don’t make money from the sale of their work. In scientific publishing today, copyright is used almost exclusively as a means to restrict access to information. Copyright protects the interests of publishers and the works they publish, and not the rights of scientists.

In fact, the way that publishers wield copyright actually weakens authors’ protection against misuse of their works. While copyright offers some legal protection against plagiarism, there are few cases in which copyright has been used to prosecute plagiarists. The real protection against plagiarism in scientific publishing comes from a scientific culture that does not tolerate these practices — scientists’ careers are ruined when it is discovered that they have stolen someone else’s work. Therefore the best protection against plagiarism is detection, and detection is infinitely easier when the original is freely available.

It’s important to view the issues in scientific publishing in light of the other issues going on in copyright, but the issues are very different. Scientific works don’t have an isolated meaning; they exist only in reference to the broader scientific community, and the whole reason you publish them is so that other people will read and use them. If research is paid for by the public through a federal agency or public-minded institution, it’s likely the scientists doing the research are public-minded people interested in producing public knowledge. If the product of that research doesn’t belong in the public domain, then the public domain doesn’t have any meaning.

CC: Why did you decide to use Creative Commons licenses?

ME: Creative Commons and PLoS share the common goal of strengthening the science commons, and we want to take advantage of all the work Creative Commons and the growing number of Creative Commons license users are doing to create, defend, and internationalize licenses that define the commons.

We chose the attribution license because it ensures the optimal accessibility and usability while preserving the one thing that scientists value the most: attribution for their work.

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