Scientists seek open access to medical research
By Carey Goldberg, Globe Staff, 8/14/2003
Their argument goes like this: Your federal tax dollars pay for some
$50 billion a year in medical and scientific research. But if your
falls ill and you want to see the latest findings on her disease,
often have to pay again, to get access to the powerful journals that
Now, a vanguard of rebellious scientists, Nobel laureates among them,
are challenging the entrenched journals, such as the New England
Medicine and Nature, that have long dominated the flow of research
Under the banner of the "Public Library of Science," they are pushing
for "open access" to scientific journals, arguing that findings should
freely and immediately available online for researchers and regular
"The point is that your tax dollars support research," said Harold
Varmus, president of the Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center in New
and former head of the National Institutes of Health. "You may not
follow research day by day, but if you're ill, or one of your
ill, or you have a son doing a high school science project and you
see what the latest information is, you have a right to see those
Varmus's group is about to begin publishing two peer-reviewed
journals online meant to compete with the established journals
show that open access can work with top-level scientific results.
"We're up against the status quo," he said, referring to journals
that generally charge hundreds or thousands of dollars a year for
subscriptions and between $15 and $50 to non-subscribers for access to
article online. Some barely scrape by, but others make healthy
In their defense, some journal editors warn that their journals will
not be able to make ends meet without subscriptions and per-article
and if they fold, that will only hurt the cause of spreading
Some editors also counter that they have already expanded free online
access to their research, and question whether there is really
demand for information. The New England Journal of Medicine, for
makes its material available on its website six months after
and Science does so after a year.
"Of course, anybody can walk into a public library and request an
inter-library loan copy of an article and get it for free," said Jayne
Marks, publishing director at Nature Publishing Group, which puts out
journals, including Nature.
That is not the same, however, as being able to do an efficient,
sweeping, online search for all relevant findings on a scientific or
topic, open-access advocates say.
The open access battle taps into longstanding frustration among
scientists, many of whom feel that they do all the work of the
then it is the journals that make money from it. As Patrick Brown,
scientist leading the open-access movement, put it, "They're given
funded free stuff to own and control and make money off of."
Underway for months, the battle is now reaching a higher pitch.
plan to release a preview of the first of its online journals, PLoS
Biology, next week. PLoS Medicine is expected to follow next year.
Congress, too, is getting involved. In June, a Minnesota congressman
submitted a bill that would make research "substantially funded" by
money no longer eligible for copyright protection."
"It is wrong when the family whose child has a rare disease must pay
again for research data their tax dollars already paid for," the
congressman, Martin Olav Sabo, a Democrat, said in a statement when he
introduced the bill, the Public Access to Science Act.
Fueled by a $9 million grant they got this winter from the Gordon and
Betty Moore Foundation, the open-access crusaders have also begun a
publicity campaign in the media and among scientists: The likes of
Prize winner James Watson of double-helix renown and
Harvard University ant man E.O. Wilson lend their famous faces to
backing the PLoS.
Whether the open-access advocates will succeed, however, seems to
hinge largely on whether their online journals can quickly build the
prestige and following to prove that an open-access journal can stay
and provide top-tier quality. And that depends on whether scientists
submit top research papers to it.
Under the PLoS model, researchers pay about $1,500 to get their work
published, presumably out of their grant money. In contrast, existing
journals generally levy some minor charges on scientists, but depend
on subscription and ad revenue.
That added $1,500 cost to scientists may be a deterrent, but a
greater challenge is the task of convincing researchers to take the
risk of publishing their work in an unproven journal instead of a
Nagi Ayad, a post-doctoral fellow in cell biology at Harvard who is
ready to publish the fruits of two years of hard work on cell
related to cancer, is caught in the middle of just such a publishing
Until recently, his path would have been clear: Go for the most
prestigious scientific journal possible, preferably Science, Nature or
the Harvard-Yale-Princeton of the journal world for biologists and the
flashiest place to be published when applying for scarce faculty jobs.
But with PLoS-Biology, "I'm definitely torn," he said.
Ayad said he remains uncertain about submitting his paper to PLoS,
"because I do want to see this kind of enterprise succeed. At the same
if it doesn't succeed, I've sort of wasted my efforts" since journals
reprint material published elsewhere. It is a bit, he said, like
whether to give money to a new charity: If the charity fails to get
ground, your money will help no one.
The journal world is divided into for-profit publishers like Nature
and the international giant Elsevier, and non-profit publishers run by
scientific societies that often depend on income from their journals.
In the open-access debate, the for-profit publishers tend to argue
that they deserve their profits because they add value to the papers
get for free, whether through formatting, additional news stories, or
The nonprofits tend to sound like Alan Leshner, president of the
American Association for the Advancement of Science, which publishes
"The notion of trying to increase access is a good one," he said.
He and other nonprofit publishers are saying, ` "Gee, I wonder if
that will work,' " he said. " `Just don't force me into it before
tested it.' They have a hypothesis, so they should test the
if it works, it will become our theory, too."
Such caution also came through in an essay in last month's Journal of
Cell Biology by Michael J. Held, the executive editor of the
University Press. Models for open access, whether by PLoS or other
publishers like BioMed Central, are "honorable, noble experiments,"
would be premature to kill off the current model for publishing
For now, he wrote, "It is far better for all of us to work together
cooperatively for the good of disseminating science, rather than be in
constant discord, thereby creating animosity among researchers,
and librarians, delaying progress."
"Theta" <th...@btinternet.com> wrote in message
If the public paid for the research, they (we) should have access to the
results without the filter of the popular media who boil it down to "sexy"
sound bites which often bear no read resemblence to the actual results if
they report on the paper at all.
The growth of the human mind is still high adventure, in many ways the
highest adventure on earth.
"Theta" <th...@btinternet.com> wrote in message