Scientists take on the publishers in an experiment to make research free to all

New academics' journal launched in challenge to multinationals

In the highly lucrative world of cutting-edge scientific research, it is nothing short of a revolution. A group of leading scientists are to mount an unprecedented challenge to the publishers that lock away the valuable findings of research in expensive, subscription-only electronic databases by launching their own journal to give away results for free.

The control of information on everything from new cancer treatments to space exploration is at stake, while caught in the crossfire are the world's publicly funded scientists, some of whom will soon face a choice between their career and their conscience.

On one side of the conflict stand the major multinational publishing houses like Elsevier Science that package scientific findings into hundreds of specialist journals and sell them for thousands of pounds a year. On the other is a new publishing group called the Public Library of Science (PLoS) that will distribute its journals free of charge and is backed by top scientists, including the British Nobel prize winners Paul Nurse and Sir John Sulston.

"The publishers are making a lot of money out of our research and it's not fair that lots of good, basic science isn't available to everyone," said Julie Ahringer, a biologist at Cambridge University. "Knowledge should be free."

Dr Ahringer is on the editorial board of PLoS Biology, the group's first journal that is due to be launched on October 13. With articles about the genetic origins of elephants and molecular signalling in the fruit fly, it is unlikely to displace Cosmopolitan and FHM from the newsstands. But those behind the new venture have their sights on an equally ambitious target: convincing existing publishers to change their ways and join them in making more information freely available.

"Our goal is to have this publishing model extend well beyond us. We don't want to have 1% or 5% of the literature being open access, we want all the literature to be open access," said Vivian Siegel, executive editor of the PLoS.

The new biology journal will be available on the internet, but 25,000 print copies of the first monthly edition will also be produced. A second journal for medical research is planned for next year and more could follow.

While PLoS Biology is not the first open access scientific journal, it is the most high-profile and best supported so far, and, crucially, it is financed by a grant of several million dollars from an American charitable foundation. It is probably also the first science journal to advertise on US peak-time television.


"The goal of this journal is to become the first destination for research in the life sciences and to compete head-on with the existing high-profile journals," Dr Siegel said. "It's about doing something you believe in rather than doing things the way everybody else does them and I think that's the hallmark of the best scientists."

While other publishers publicly say they are not threatened by the move, they are watching the situation with mounting concern. At least one already has its own open-access version primed and ready to launch if necessary.

"We're all scientists and we like experiments, well here's an experiment. And if it works then we'll all take the lessons from it," said Dr Alan Leshner, executive publisher of the American journal Science.

In a statement, Elsevier Science said: "Elsevier welcomes further experimentation and are open to competition, but do not believe that the existing subscription-based business model should be abandoned prior to proving that another model works."

Some competitors have predicted that the new journal group will be unable to keep its head above water once its initial funding runs out. While most journals charge hefty subscription fees, the PLoS intends to pay its way by charging the scientists whose work is published; it hopes that the funding agencies and charities paying for the research in the first place will pick up the $1,500 bill. "Our motivation is to serve the community in the best way possible and to do it by just making ends meet rather than generating huge profits," Dr Siegel said.

The new journals follow a failed attempt by the PLoS group to use more direct action to force scientific publishers to make information freely available. More than 30,000 scientists signed its pledge to boycott journals that refused to fully release scientific results, but backed down when the publishers called their bluff.

This is partly because such journals offer scientists more than just information. Researchers need to publish their findings to secure funding and job offers, and an appearance in the highly regarded pages of Science or the London-based Nature effectively places a large gold star on a young scientist's CV.

Some scientists say this academic pecking order could yet scupper the PLoS journals. "I would probably at the moment continue sending my best work to the established journals," said Dr William Harrison, a chemistry researcher at Aberdeen University who signed the original PLoS petition. "However good or well-intentioned this new kind of initiative is, it will certainly take time for it to become known and established and even respectable."

One group of people willing it to succeed are university librarians, who have seen both the number and price of journals escalate rapidly in recent years.

Jan Wilkinson, head librarian at the University of Leeds, said an average journal subscription costs about £1,000, with some, such as Elsevier's Brain Research, costing as much as £15,000 a year. "Big research libraries have tried to act collectively to put pressure on publishers, but our academics need the journals for their research and the pressure from them is so great that our ability to withhold payment isn't very powerful," she said.

Most research libraries are phasing out print subscriptions in exchange for access to large electronic packages that give access to hundreds of titles, but the price of these packages is rising by as much as 150% a year.

"We need to get academics to recognise the craziness of what they've been doing," she said. "They do all this work and then they just hand it over for free, and then the publishers sell it back to us at these rip-off prices."

Annual print subscription prices for UK libraries (2004 price where available)

Publisher: Nature Publishing Group
Price: £545
Prestigious, long-running multidisciplinary journal and a must-have for libraries

Publisher: American Association for the Advancement of Science
Price $510 (£325)
Major US player and perhaps the most widely read science journal in the world

Journal of the American Chemical Society
Publisher: American Chemical Society
Price: $3,244 (£1,940)
One of the heavyweight specialist journals, a big favourite among chemistry researchers

Physical Review Letters
Publisher: American Physical Society, $3,255 (£1,945)
Essential for physicists, many of whom prefer it to Science and Nature

Brain Research
Publisher: Elsevier Science
Price: €19,013 (£13,300)
A comprehensive look at events in neuroscience

This article appeared in the Guardian on Monday October 06 2003 on p3 of the Life news and features section. It was last updated at 08:46 on October 06 2003.

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