Science online: breaching the firewall
In the Internet age, electronic distribution is forcing some for-profitjournals to post research sooner, and for free

By Diane Ainsworth, Public Affairs



Professor Nicholas Cozzarelli, editor of a prestigious science journal, believes research should be accessible to all.
Noah Berger photo

15 August 2002 | Scientific publishing has hit a digital divide. On one side of the chasm are the leading journals, such as Science, The Journal of the American Medical Association, and The New England Journal of Medicine, which restrict access to their content to individuals or institutions who pay hundreds or thousands of dollars a year for subscriptions.

On the other side are the majority of scientists and the editors of some not-for-profit journals, who believe that papers describing the results of publicly funded research should be available to anyone, anywhere, at no cost, soon after publication.

Berkeley biochemist Nicholas Cozzarelli is editor-in-chief of The Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, which publishes on a break-even basis, returning any annual profit it realizes to the Academy. He distinguishes between scientific publishing as engaged in by commercial entities, an “extremely lucrative” enterprise netting hundreds of millions of dollars in profit, and that undertaken by noncommercial entities such as scientific societies, which “don’t spend their profits on yachts.” But he still has problems with the publishing-for-profit approach.

“Many of the noncommercial publishers run by societies have used journals as cash cows,” he says. “The money is used for things like keeping the society going, running the annual meetings, maintaining a headquarters, and helping out the membership of that society. I don’t think that is a good idea in the long run. It seems to me that the cost of the journal should reflect what it costs to produce it — with perhaps a modicum of profit so they have enough flexibility to keep things going. But nothing more.”

Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory molecular biologist Michael Eisen helped spearhead the creation of the Public Library of Science, an advocacy group turned scientific publisher that plans to make all research articles it publishes available online immediately and at no charge. He notes that the current economic model in scientific publishing, by necessitating high subscription rates, inevitably results in restricted access to scientific data. “We believe it’s far more sensible for the costs involved in publishing the results of scientific research to be borne by the groups that fund the research,” Eisen says. Under that model, money currently used to pay for journal subscriptions would be diverted to pay the costs of publishing, with perhaps a modest profit permitted as well. “But,” Eisen insists, “there would no longer be any [economic] need to restrict access to the published work.”

Along with reduced subscription fees, electronic publishing via the Internet is a keystone of the effort to increase access to scientific data. Cozzarelli saw to it that the prestigious Proceedings became the first major journal to join PubMed Central, a free, full-text biomedical archive founded by the National Institutes of Health.

“I wanted to make a statement to the scientific community about their responsibility to release results to the world. If the National Academy of Sciences doesn’t do it, who will? If we aren’t for science, who is?”

Another advantage offered by electronic publishing is interjournal linking, whereby a reader can navigate via hyperlinks to any journal article cited by the authors of the research he or she is reviewing. “We took a tough stance on this issue,” says Cozzarelli. “PNAS got together with The Journal of Biological Chemistry and a few others and decided that we would share interjournal links among ourselves, so that if anybody ever referred to an article that was from this initial group of publications, the reader would be able to click on that article and get it free. You didn’t have to have a subscription. It was an important move in taking advantage of the new possibilities of online publication and making science more easily accessible.” This was yet another change that spread readily around the scientific community, Cozzarelli says, noting that today interjournal linking — made possible by Internet technology that a decade ago would have looked like science fiction to many — is simply routine.


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