Science for all

Print edition : January 19, 2002

A group of biomedical scientists calls for the establishment of an online public library of science with the objective of making scientific and medical literature freely accessible to scientists and the public around the world.

THE Internet and the concept of the World Wide Web are challenging the traditional paradigms of publishing. This is only to be expected, given that the Web interface allows the transfer of data files, images, graphics, pages, text and even movies to personal computers around the world. But it has impacted on the area of scholarly communication, journals of primary scientific research in particular, rather uniquely in the wake of the spiralling subscription rates of many important journals. Large privately owned publishing houses have been particularly guilty of this, with their price hikes inexplicably outpacing inflation. This has precipitated what the scientific community calls a "serials crisis", in which libraries are caught in a vicious loop of increasing journal costs, declining subscription base and the consequent price hike.

Libraries in developing countries have been particularly hit. They are forced not only to cancel subscriptions to many non-essential publications but also to forgo purchase of books in order to maintain their subscriptions to indispensable journals. Even in developed countries, many institutions with limited resources face this squeeze. In an attempt to beat this crisis Thomas J. Walker, a United States-based entomologist, innovatively uses e-versions of manuscripts within his own small community of researchers. He says, "In a world brimming with the new knowledge and new ways to find it, there have been pockets of information poverty and local hardship."

In this situation, one would imagine that the rapid technological development of the Internet would revolutionise "online" publishing of primary research literature and thus ensure its equitable and low-cost access to scientists around the world. Ironically, contrary to the promises of "open and free digital knowledge" held out by prophets of the Internet revolution, new forms of barriers to access have arisen. Walker calls this the "toll-gate approach". It is an extension of the current economic structure of scientific publishing, which has been exploited by large publishing houses to maximise profits.

Publishers now charge variously for online access to journal articles in the form of subscriptions to the print version (so that the huge profits from the print version are maintained), site licences and "pay-per-view" or "pay-per-download" schemes. These economic interests, Walker points out, are not shared by the scientists - the real generators of the content that is marketed - and professional societies to which they belong. There is growing opposition among scientists to making the results of research carried out with public money a commodity to be resold at high prices. "(Disciplinary) societies," says Walker, "have important alternative options for the journals during the transition to our collective digital future - options that can serve the research community, provide institutions some relief from the serials crisis, finance online publishing and make knowledge available to all".

One such concept proposed by a group of biomedical scientists in the U.S. is called the Public Library of Science (PLoS). PLoS, according to the website ( is a non-profit organisation of scientists "committed to making the world's scientific and medical literature freely accessible to scientists and to the public around the world for the benefit of scientific progress, education and the public good." An open letter circulated by PLoS about a year ago has triggered an interesting debate, and later a controversy, on the issue of free e-access to research literature in the fast-growing field of biological sciences.

The idea of PLoS actually grew out of a proposal made in May 1999 by Harold E. Varmus, the then Director of the U.S. National Institutes of Health (NIH) who is now with the Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Centre, along with Patrick Brown of Stanford University and David Lipman of the National Centre for Biotechnology Information (NCBI). The idea was to establish a freely accessible central repository of all life sciences research literature called PubMed Central (PMC). Originally called E-BioMed, the PMC is to be managed by the NCBI as part of the U.S.' National Library of Medicine (NLM), which has experience in running online databases such as PubMed (or MEDLINE) for biomedical abstracts and GenBank for the sequences of the deoxyribonucleic acid (DNA).

The basic philosophy of PLoS is that "the permanent, archival record of scientific research and ideas should neither be owned nor controlled by publishers, but should belong to the public, and should be made freely available". PLoS aims "to establish international online public libraries of science that will archive and distribute the complete contents of published scientific articles, and foster the development of new ways to search, interlink and integrate the information that is currently partitioned into millions of separate reports and segregated into thousands of different journals, each with its own restriction on access." The signatories to the open letter resolved that beginning September 2001 they will boycott journals that do not grant unrestricted free distribution rights to "any and all research articles that they have published through PMC and similar on-line public resources, within six months of their initial publication date".

PLoS argued that its proposal balanced the interests of commercial and non-profit publishers, scientists and the public. In exchange for their role in editing, peer review and publishing, publishers get a six-month lease on, rather than ownership of, the original research reports they publish. At the end of the lease they became public domain. Six months, according to PLoS, is sufficient for publishers to maintain their revenue through subscription fees for print editions and e-access to articles.

A letter written in March to Science (a journal brought out by the American Association for the Advancement of Science, AAAS) by some of the proponents of PLoS likened their concept of a central comprehensive archive for published literature to GenBank. The letter argued that the steps initiated by some journals to make their online contents freely available after some delay through their own websites was not good enough.

"Material that is freely accessible, on a controlled basis, one paper at a time, at a journal's website," they said, "differs from material that is freely accessible in a single comprehensive collection. The latter can be efficiently indexed, searched, and linked to, whereas the former cannot... Only by creating repositories with uniform, explicitly defined, and structured formats can a dynamic digital archive of life science research literature become possible. Unimpeded access to these archives and open distribution of their contents will enable researchers to take on the challenge of integrating and interconnecting the fantastically rich, but extremely fragmented and chaotic scientific literature."

The PMC, according to them, was the first of the many public archives they envisioned. Arguing that the costs of participating in open archives would be minimal and "would be more than offset by the benefits their participation would bring to the scientific community", the letter to Science urged editors and publishers of biology and biomedical journals to deposit the electronic versions of their published papers (after a brief delay) with the PMC for free access and distribution. "If these efforts are successful," the letter said, "in 10 years, everyone's ability to do science will have been greatly enriched, and we will all wonder how it was possible to work without such archives."

Les Grivel, director of E-BioSci, the European digital biological information resource network, wanted the proposal to go a bit further. He pointed out that limited access to databases was a much more serious problem, particularly after the European Union Database Directive, but it was being ignored. He also cited the recent instance of Celera Genomics imposing conditions to Science for access to its genome data.

Indeed, apart from enabling scientists to work with integrated and interlinked research information, a central repository helps them in data mining for extracting patterns, which could be useful in discoveries. These would otherwise remain hidden in the vast volume of data scattered worldwide. Besides, many studies have shown that open access increases dramatically the impact factor and citation of a given article.

The editors of Science however, argued against the PLoS concept. Rejecting the idea of PMC as the archive site, Science argued in favour of the multi-national repository at the Stanford-based non-profit organisation HighWire Press (HWP), which archives 240 journals, including biological, physical and inter-disciplinary papers. Searching across these multi-journal sites was already possible at the HWP's site.

Science rejected the PLoS proposition on three grounds: it denies journals like Science an important source of revenue from online traffic on their sites; unlimited redistribution of content could lead to misuse and loss of fidelity; and it will entail risks associated with monopoly suppliers, especially with a state-run unit like the PMC. Science also argued that specialised journals run by professional societies would become unviable as the economic "floor" on which they stood was provided by academic library subscriptions, which would be lost if papers were to become freely accessible at the PMC.

The PLoS' authors promptly countered Science's arguments saying that the journals' "timid response" arose from institutional inertia and misconceptions about the proposal. Denying that they advocated any kind of monopolistic hold over primary literature, the authors said that the current system of publishing implied that each publisher was a monopoly. They also wondered why Science preferred a private monopoly like the HWP over the PMC, which, in any case, was only proposed as the first of many such repositories around the world.

The authors also countered the Science editors' argument that free and unrestricted access to Science papers would imply a loss of income. According to the PLoS proponents, the experience of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS) and Molecular Biology of the Cell proved otherwise. These journals have been making their contents available free of cost within two months of their publication but subscriptions had not dropped, they said. (Some publications have, however, found a small decline in subscriptions.)

The PLoS authors said that Science's contention that loss of online traffic meant loss of an important source of income was unconvincing. As members of the AAAS they demanded that Science make public its full financial records, including all its sources of income, its operating expenditures and the AAAS' activities that benefit from Science's profits. As for Science's apprehension about misuse of content, they said that it would be easier to detect misuse when full-text archives are freely accessible than when their access is restricted.

The journal Nature also ran a debate on free e-access, which elicited diverse opinions. Nature argued against total dismantling of the existing system and associated business models. It said that the challenge was to preserve the best of the current journal system. Predictably, private publishing houses such as Elsevier Science rejected the PLoS/ PMC idea and society-run publications would not go as far as allowing total freedom to redistributed contents. There were also conservative voices which warned against "throwing the baby out with the bathwater". Some even described PLoS' posture as "arrogant".

ARGUING that publishing a high-quality online journal was an expensive business, Martin Richardson of the Oxford University Press, called for new financing mechanisms that could free literature for open e-access, instead of subscription-based revenue models. Martin Blume, the editor-in-chief of the American Physical Society (APS), proposed a financing scheme in which institutions or societies can become sponsors of journals and make annual contributions, instead of paying subscription or page charges.

As of January 7, 2002, 29, 091 scientists from 174 countries have signed the open letter, according to the PLoS website. Not unexpectedly the scientists' response has been more enthusiastic than that of publishing establishments. According to a letter posted on the PLoS website on August 31, 2001, while the PLoS initiative had prompted "significant and welcome steps by many scientific publishers towards freer access to published research", in general, these steps had fallen short of the "reasonable policies" that PLoS had proposed.

What does the pledge of boycott imply operationally? PLoS' August 31 letter to all its supporters reiterates its commitment to honour the pledge: "By directing our manuscripts and our voluntary assistance (reviewing and editing) to these journals (that have adopted the policy proposed in the open letter), we will reaffirm our belief that no single entity, whether a publisher or government, should have control over any portion of scientific literature."

Given that the number of journals that have fully embraced the PLoS philosophy is not very large, PLoS has made its stance somewhat flexible. Whenever an appropriate journal that meets PLoS' standards is not available for the nature of work that needs to be published, PLoS expects its supporters to publish an option that comes closest to meeting its goals of unrestricted free distribution within six months. Also, significantly, the PMC too has diluted its earlier proposal of centralised access to decentralised access; that is, allowing viewing of full-texts only at the journal's website if the participating journal so desires.

"I cannot really say what will be the impact of this boycott," says P. Balaram of the Indian Institute of Science, Bangalore, and editor of the Indian journal Current Science. "In biology, unlike in physical sciences, there are many privately owned journals that carry a lot of prestige and impact value. So this boycott may not have any immediate impact though the idea of a central comprehensive searchable archive is good and will be extremely useful," he says.

"Unfortunately not many journals have come onto the PMC platform, says K. VijayRaghavan, director of the National Centre for Biological Sciences, Bangalore, and one of the 381 Indian signatories of PLoS' open letter. "While seniors can afford to stay away from these high priced, high profile publications, young researchers cannot afford to do so as their careers depend on where they publish their work." The only solution, he feels, is to have quality e-version journals alone, with online peer-reviews, which would bring down costs drastically. It is not an infeasible proposition. It only requires some enterprise with courage and conviction to do away with the print journals completely, he says.

In January 2000, Walker pioneered the concept of selling Immediate Free Web Access (IFWA) for articles from four entomology journals published by the Entomological Society of America (ESA). IFWA is sold to authors at a certain fair price without requiring them to subscribe to the print version in order to gain access to the e-version. The authors pay (much like page charges for the print version) for open free access to their articles. Owing to the realisation among scientists that IFWA ensures wider impact, its purchase rate has risen steadily and it has proved to be a profit-making service. The number of ESA authors buying IFWA has gone up from 13 per cent to about 50 per cent. This, Walker feels, could even eventually lead to the complete demise of the paper version.

One cannot be sure if the ESA model can work for all kinds of journals, but what is clear is that new paradigms of journal publication are emerging. PLoS itself has now realised that if publication of scientific research must conform fully to it principles, it must do the publishing itself. "It is now time for us to work together to create the journals we have called for," says the August 31 letter. PLoS believes that it is both necessary and financially feasible for scientists to create a mechanism for publishing their work with responsible, efficient peer-review and high editorial standards and at the same time, allow free and unrestricted online distribution from the moment of publication. PLoS now intends to establish a non-profit science publisher under its banner. It will be operated by scientists, for the benefit of science and the public.

IN May 2000, an electronic publishing house, BioMed Central (BMC), with active support from the scientific community in favour of free e-access to primary literature and like-mined entrepreneurs in the publishing field, launched an e-journal BioMed Central with the basic philosophy that is being advocated by PLoS. The journal has an online refereeing and peer-review system. It publishes 57 online journals on biology and medicine in its website, www., with free access.

One may wonder why this demand to overthrow traditional publishing paradigms is emerging only in the field of biomedical sciences. The main reason, perhaps, is the boom in biological sciences in the past three decades. Private publishers were quick to see the opportunity to make profits by publishing biology.

It is also perhaps largely a cultural problem. In physics and mathematics there has been a tradition of circulating information widely in pre-print form - a tradition that is totally absent in biology and biomedical sciences - which, in the present computerised age, has assumed an e-version. Thus, researchers have open electronic access to much of the recent literature prior to its publication. While creating "self-archiving initiatives" - which involve archives of e-prints at their own constitutions and harvesting of these inter-operable archives into one global archive that can be freely searched and accessed online - is an idea that has been mooted for biosciences, these have already evolved in physical sciences.

Mathematicians and physicists these days routinely submit their manuscripts as e-prints to an Internet server and to journals for publication. If the manuscript is rewritten, the new version is submitted but the old one stays in the online archive and is useful in settling questions of priority when such issues arise. The famous e-print server at at Los Alamos National Laboratory (LANL) currently handles 25,000 submissions in physical sciences annually at a cost of $15 per paper, including overheads. The founder of the IANL e-print archive and its current overseer is the physicist Paul Ginsparg who started it himself because it seemed a good use of the emerging Web technology. The popularity of this is great, and it is known that e-print versions are widely consulted.

However, even in physical sciences there are still barriers to accessing the final version online, though they are not as severe as in biological sciences where online access charges have been hiked to unreasonable levels. Ironically, Nature, which ran the debate on free e-access, is also guilty of this. But the ongoing battle in biosciences may indeed throw up new ideas and solutions that could be later adopted by other fields.

Web technology too is evolving specifically to cater to archiving and manipulation of the vast mass of scientific literature and data online. The 'semantic web' being developed by the creator of the WWW, Tim Berners-Lee, which will allow more web content to the machine understandable, and the 'adaptive decentralised web' being developed at LANL are cases in point. These, together with new search tools and engines being developed for archives such as the PMC or HWP, will in the near future define the new paradigms of scientific publishing and alter the modes of scholarly discourse and communication in science.

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