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October 23, 2003

First run of ‘open access’ journal has local flavor

News and Information

An ambitious new venture in scholarly publishing is aiming to broaden access to current research and to lower costs for academic libraries.

This month the Public Library of Science launched PLoS Biology, its first “open access” journal. The inaugural issue includes an article by Robert Waterston, professor and Gates chair of genome sciences, and Phillipe Soriano of the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center.

The open access concept is different from the usual business model for journals in that access is free to the user. Instead of billing subscribers an annual fee, the peer-reviewed journal charges authors selected for publication a relatively small fee (in the hundreds of dollars).

“The idea is to put content where it can be most useful to its target audience,” says Mel DeSart, head of the Engineering Library and chair of the Libraries Scholarly Communication Steering Committee. “Academic libraries are interested in promoting this as a publishing option for faculty for two reasons: access and costs.”

The issues are related. Some commercially published scholarly journals charge annual subscription fees of more than $20,000, with price increases in many cases running well ahead of inflation. In tight budget times, this means some libraries will be faced with difficult choices about which journals they will buy. And those decisions have ramifications regarding access to information.

“When we explain this to faculty, many of them experience sticker shock,” DeSart says. “If these expensive journals are to be retained, they must be paid for in some way, which means libraries are faced with increasingly difficult choices. Almost all libraries are canceling journals, given costs and budgets. When a journal is cancelled, the number of readers with access to that journal is reduced. For an author publishing in such a journal, that means fewer researchers with ready access to the author’s work.”

Open access journals aren’t the only model for holding down subscription costs, DeSart notes. Some journal costs are kept low because they are supported by professional societies or universities, which generally are willing to accept a lower rate of return than commercial publishing companies.

But the Public Library of Science is receiving a lot of attention in the academic community. It is headed by Harold Varmus, former director of the National Institutes of Health and Nobel laureate. It has a distinguished board of directors and support from some of the world’s leading scientists.

“Unlimited access to scientific research will speed discoveries and medical advances, as it has in the cases of the Human Genome Project and SARS,” Varmus said. “The speed at which these projects advanced science and, more importantly, saved lives is testament to the equation that drives the Public Library of Science — multiply knowledge by access and you really accelerate progress.”

There are two major barriers to the potential growth of open access journals, DeSart says. One, common to most new journals, is the academic promotion and tenure system, which rewards publication and citation in the most prestigious journals and thus discourages junior faculty from submitting their work to newer journals.

“There’s a great deal of weight attached to publication in prestigious journals, as part of the tenure process,” he says. “Those journals have tremendous pull, and as long as they maintain their reputations, libraries will be pressured to continue to purchase them, regardless of cost. Fortunately, only a fraction of commercially published journals carry that kind of weight.”

The second barrier is the format of the journal itself. In the open access model, publication costs are assumed by the authors or the authors’ institutions, not by those wishing to access the content of the journal. These costs can be a barrier, particularly for junior faculty.

DeSart is optimistic about the future of PloS Biology and PloS Medicine, scheduled to be published shortly. “This is a quality product. I think it will get people used to publishing in this setting, using the open-access model. While it won’t challenge the most prestigious commercial journals in the short term, if it is able to produce high citation numbers, it will grow. The real test, of course, is whether the publication can support itself financially. Realistically, the only way for libraries and universities to have any power over the escalating costs of commercially published journals is to have an alternative available. That’s our hope.”

Information about the Public Library of Science is available at http://www.plos.org/index.html.