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Public Library of Science Issues Ultimatum; Prepares for Journal Boycott, Self-Publication


The Public Library of Science Initiative is readying itself for a large-scale boycott of several leading scientific journals and said it plans to begin publishing its own journals in September if final negotiations with journal publishers break down.

Addressing the International Conference on Intelligent Systems in Molecular Biology last week, Michael Eisen of the University of California, Berkeley, said the initiative was sticking by its pledge to publish in, edit or review for, and subscribe to only those journals that agree to deposit all published articles in PubMedCentral or other free online resources within six months of their initial publication date.

The initiative, which posted an open letter stating its position on its website (www.publiclibraryof last fall, set September 2001 as the start date for its boycott of any journal not adhering to its demands. Over 25,000 scientists have signed the letter, including several Nobel laureates.

With the September deadline drawing nearer, Eisen said that the group has “been met with hostility” by most journal publishers and is “faced with the likelihood that there will be nowhere to be published” after September 1.

“The only alternative is to create a way to publish our own journals,” Eisen said.

While there are certainly ideological and financial concerns behind the group’s demands—Eisen compared the current publishing process to a midwife who delivers a baby and then charges its parents to visit it—the driving force behind the effort is the establishment of a single archive for biomedical literature that could be mined for information.

Eisen said the effort had its roots in a project at Berkeley to extract information from the literature in order to make better sense of microarray data. However, each publisher currently has its own archive of articles, requiring a large number of searches for any one topic. A single, free repository of scientific articles would be as valuable a resource as GenBank is for genomic data, Eisen said, particularly in the face of growing interest from the bioinformatics community to develop text-mining tools to query the biological literature.

The current publishing system is an artifact of an age when printing and distribution were expensive, Eisen said, “but now that the scientific literature is available electronically, it’s only logical to have a complete archive.”

But journal publishers have been unwilling to accept the proposed model, in which they would be paid to produce the manuscript, but would not own the material after publication. So far, only Genome Biology and PubMedCentral have agreed to the terms of the initiative. Eisen said the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences and Nucleic Acids Research have agreed to deposit articles in PubMedCentral but won’t allow them to be redistributed. Other publishers, Eisen said, “get it,” but are unwilling to change their current business models.

Russ Altman, president of the International Society for Computational Biology, said that the ISCB supports the initiative, but is still assessing the logistics of including the society’s journal, Bioinformatics, under its terms.

The group expects to fund its efforts through granting agencies, charitable foundations, and a small up-front charge to authors (estimated to be $200-$500 at first, with costs decreasing over time as methods improve). They also expect to hire 2-3 full-time staff members to manage the peer-review and publishing process.

The initiative intends to maintain the quality of the peer-review process currently in place at leading journals and has established a preliminary editorial board of several “very prominent scientists,” according to Eisen. Though he declined to specify who the editors might be, he noted that Michael Ashburner of the University of Cambridge, Pat Brown of Stanford University, and Harold Varmus of the Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center are strong supporters of the initiative.

But the effort may have a hard time convincing some scientists that publication through the Public Library of Science will carry the same prestige as publication in Science or Nature. One ISMB attendee, who said he strongly supported the effort, noted, “I’m up for tenure, so I’m still going to try and get published in Science if I can.”

Other attendees suggested the group compromise with publishers to allow a longer waiting period. “Most scientists don’t care if what they’re looking at is a year old,” said one observer. However, noting that PNAS recently changed its free-access policy from a one-month waiting period to a six-month period, Eisen said the group feared similar behavior by other publishers who would try to push the boundaries beyond one year.

The question remains whether the 25,000 scientists who signed the open letter will commit to the boycott. Eisen told BioInform that a number of ISMB attendees expressed support for the effort, but were unsure whether it was worth the risk to follow through.

“I think the scientists and the publishers don’t realize that the journals are totally dependent on the scientific community,” Eisen said. “The publishers think they’ve called our bluff, but if we all agree on this we could turn off the spigot.”

— BT

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