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Reluctant Publishers and the Birth of PLoS

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Pat Brown, Michael Eisen, and Harold Varmus have become the face of the Public Library of Science, but none of them ever set out to be a publisher.

Eisen was a postdoc in Brown's lab at Stanford when he first realized that access was even an issue. It was the early days of microarrays, and Brown's team was using computers to tackle some of the original high-throughput problems in biology. "One of the things we thought about doing was to go out and mine the literature — pull out all the papers that mention genes that are upregulated in this condition," Eisen recalls. "It seemed like a natural thing to do to get the contents of those papers and suck them into a computer and do interesting and cool stuff with it."

But when they went to Stanford's library with the request, they were turned down. "It was the first moment I thought about what it meant, the fact that the scientific literature was owned by publishers," Eisen says.

In 2001, Brown and Eisen kicked off a petition — an online initiative scientists would sign to indicate their support for free access to the literature and their commitment to publish only in open access venues. Thousands of researchers signed the petition. But "a lot of people are supportive right up to the point where it comes to where they're going to submit their paper," says open access advocate Cameron Neylon. "People are coming up for tenure review or promotion review, they want those 10 papers in those recognized journals." The petition failed to give open access the widespread support that Eisen and Brown had envisioned; scientists kept publishing in traditional journals regardless of access policies.

By 2003, they realized they would need to take a different tack. Joined by Varmus, they launched PLoS with the goal "to create a bunch of … high-profile, high-end journals that would convince people that high quality and open access could be synonymous," Eisen says. They raised $13 million in grant support from the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation and other philanthropies and opened PLoS Biology.

Traditional publishers have had a field day with PLoS, arguing that the need for grant funding served as proof of their own argument that open access was not a viable business model. But today, Eisen says that PLoS as a whole is near the break-even point, with enough journals making a profit to support the journals that aren't. "The fact that we now have multiple journals that are actually profitable is a huge thing for convincing others that open access is a viable option," Eisen says. The funny thing, he notes, is that their success in getting high-profile journals started means scientists who publish ther often are completely unaware of the access difference.

PLoS again made headlines when it launched PLoS One, an online venue that has a completely different approach. Papers are reviewed simply for sound methodology, and the peer-review process becomes a community effort that takes place when the paper comes out using commentary, rankings, and other Web 2.0 tools. This idea is "much closer to what our initial ambition was," Eisen says. Publish quickly, and then let scientists weigh in, rather than holding up access to the research for months of behind-the-doors peer review. "This is getting us close to the point where we've always wanted to be," he adds.

Next up is a task for the community: developing the "killer apps" that will be to the literature what Blast has been for sequence data. In Eisen's vision, that might mean that "when you're doing an experiment, even as you're collecting your data, it's connecting your data" to previously published results.

The ultimate irony to Eisen is that he is now a part of the system he spent years fighting. "What was initially really inspired by a desire to basically break apart the whole way publishing was done has led us to spend six years as publishers," he says.

"A lot of what motivates us now is just the frustration and anger that when people publish papers that are funded by the government, that everybody in the world can't read it," he adds. "That's an absurdity."

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