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Science Wants to Be Free

The argument for open-access journals.

Publicly funded research belongs in the public domain, says Michael Eisen, a computational biologist at Lawrence Berkeley National Labo­ratory. Along with Stanford biochemist Patrick Brown and Nobel Prize-winning oncologist Harold Varmus, Eisen founded the Public Library of Science, which is launching three new “open access” scientific journals this year. The publishers of paid-subscription journals such as Science, Nature, and Cell aren’t laughing.

What’s the state of open-access publishing today?
Depending on who’s counting, 95 percent of research papers in the life sciences are still locked up by the big commercial publishers – Elsevier, Springer, and the rest. It’s ludicrous at a time when the Internet has pushed the actual cost of distributing a research paper close to zero.

But it’s not as if a scientist who really needs a paper can’t find it. Isn’t that why research libraries pay for subscriptions?
For starters, if research were freely available, people would build better tools to sift through and dig things out. And what if you’re Joe Guy who’s just been diagnosed with cancer? It’s ridiculous that you can’t read papers that your tax dollars have paid for that might be pertinent to your condition. And often your doctor can’t either – we won’t even mention the doctor in Uganda. In the first issue of the Lancet – Elsevier’s prime medical journal – there was an editorial stating that the aim of the publication was to communicate the findings of science to the widest possible audience. Somewhere along the line, they became a business and lost touch with why they exist.

The latest policy from the National Institutes of Health “asks” grant recipients to submit their results for public access within a year of publication but doesn’t require it. That’s a lot less than some ­people were hoping for; what happened?
The forces of darkness surprised us.

“Forces of darkness”?
Scientific publishing is a $10 billion global business, growing 10 percent a year. They’re not going to let go without a fight. The Association of American Publishers has hired [former congressperson] Pat Schroeder as its president and chief lobbyist – the queen of darkness. They went up to Capitol Hill and said we were socializing scientific publishing. NIH knows where its purse strings are.

Any merit to their argument?
It’s ludicrous. What we have now is an egregiously subsidized industry – they’re given content for free and then paid tremendous amounts of money to process and distribute it. Peer reviewers mostly aren’t compensated. In a lot of fields, even the people who oversee the peer-review process are volunteers. And of course, the research that went into the papers is already paid for. And then the publishers have the gall to insist that they own a copyright on the results.

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