BERKELEY - Scientific publishing has hit a digital
divide. On one side of the chasm are the leading journals, such
as Science, JAMA (the Journal of the American Medical Association)
and The New England Journal of Medicine, which restrict access
to their content to individual or institutional subscribers.
On the other side are the majority of scientists and some not-for-profit
journals, which believe that papers describing the results of
publicly funded research should be available to anyone, anywhere,
at no cost, soon after publication.
Longstanding reputations and healthy bankrolls may allow
the most prestigious of the journals to fend off calls for free
access in the near term. But what about their midlevel competitors:
journals that are highly specialized, carry hefty subscription
prices and draw small audiences? How will they stay afloat if
new electronic distribution models become the norm models
like PubMed Central, a free, full-text biomedical archive founded
by the National Institutes of Health (NIH), or the Public Library
of Science, an advocacy group turned scientific publisher that
will make all research articles it publishes immediately and
freely available online.
UC Berkeley biochemist Nicholas Cozzarelli, editor-in-chief
for seven years of the Proceedings of the National Academy of
Sciences (PNAS), discussed some of the challenges and responsibilities
facing scientific journals in the new world of electronic publishing.
He was joined by his colleague, Michael Eisen, a molecular biologist
at the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, who helped spearhead
the creation of the Public Library of Science.
Why is there so much resistance among scientific publishers
to making articles available free of cost online?
Nicholas Cozzarelli, editor-in-chief of the Proceedings
of the National Academy of Sciences, in his Koshland Hall
lab. Noah Berger photo
Cozzarelli: Scientific publishing can be extremely lucrative
and many publishers are commercial outfits. People make hundreds
of millions of dollars in the business, so there are enormous
sums of money coming in to the commercial publishers. Many of
the noncommercial publishers run by societies have used journals
as cash cows. They dont spend their profits on yachts,
but 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 dont 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 and nothing more.
With my own journal, the Proceedings of the National Academy
of Sciences, we cant make a profit. We are a break-even
operation, required every year to have a zero balance. If we
make any profit, we have to give it back. Im not suggesting
that every journal be run this way, but I would love to see
all journals run with a modicum of profit, so that they have
enough flexibility to keep things going, but are spending most
of their money solely on scientific publishing.
So the main concern among journals is economic survival,
not making huge profits?
Cozzarelli: Theres more to it than that. The economic
argument is overblown. You hear a lot about that. But theres
a lot of inertia in the system. The journals are large organizations,
they have bureaucracies, and theyve been operating a certain
way for a long way. They dont want to change.
Eisen: Thats true. Theres very little economically
that argues for maintaining the current publication system,
except inertia. The Public Library of Science proposes to change
the way we pay to cover the costs involved in publishing. In
the current economic model for scientific publishing, revenues
come mainly from subscriptions purchased by individuals and
institutions. This system necessitates restricted access, because
who would pay to access something that is freely available?
We believe that it is far more sensible for the costs involved
in publishing the results of scientific research to be borne
by the groups universities, government agencies, foundations,
et cetera that funded the research itself, viewing the
costs of publication as a final, integral cost of the research
process. Money that is currently used to pay for journal subscriptions
would simply be diverted to pay the costs of publishing at the
time of publication the costs of production, and even
some profit, would be covered, but there would no longer be
any need to restrict access to the published work.
Then what would the major source of revenue be for new journals,
like the Public Library of Science, that arent operating
on a subscription basis?
Cozzarelli: Really, its a three-fold issue. First
of all, we have to have foundation support. This is a new venture,
and there are some foundations that are interested in providing
seed money to get a new concept journal going. The major source
of revenue in the future will be author revenues. The authors
will pay to have their work published, like a reverse royalty.
The articles will still be peer-reviewed, and Ive emphasized
that it should be a very high-quality peer review. It should
be a really first-rate journal. There will be a third source
of revenue, which has yet to be worked out completely. There
are ancillary sources of revenue in all of publishing, and the
hope in the future is that some of these will become more important.
Eisen: You have to remember that electronic distribution
costs close to nothing, so all the costs involved are incurred
in producing the first copy [of the article]. A lot of money
is already spent to support scientific publishing, about $5,000
to $10,000 per published article, and much of this money already
comes from NIH and other agencies that support scientific research.
If the costs of producing the original first copy of an article
are included in the research grant, those costs would be minimized
and this wouldnt be such a controversial issue.
When did this issue really start heating up?
Cozzarelli: The Public Library of Science initiative
got it rolling and its died down a bit since then. Two
or three years ago, they issued a challenge to the scientific
journals, saying that the journals were to give away their content
within six months of publication or face a boycott. They got
30,000 signatories to support a boycott. As it turned out, it
scared the publishers so much that some of them came into compliance
or near compliance, and so, in that sense, it was wonderfully
effective as a threat.
Eisen: We [the Public Library of Science] formed a pressure
group to urge journals to adapt new policies for electronic
publication of science results. We wanted journals to allow
their content to be redistributed in electronic archives, and
we got overwhelming support from scientists. But very few journals
have warmly embraced this idea.
What role has Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences
played in recent years to make journal articles available free
of charge on the Internet?
Cozzarelli: I felt that PNAS should take a leadership
role in scientific publishing. And this has been done, and done
so easily, because Ive had the complete support of the
academy. We were the first major journal to join PubMed Central,
an initiative that was set up by Harold Varmus when he was head
of the National Institutes of Health, and by Pat Brown [of Stanford
University] and David Lipman [director of NIHs Center
for Biotechnology Information, which operates PubMed]. The PubMed
Central initiative was aimed at making science available worldwide.
The federal government, through the National Library of Medicine,
is paying a lot of the costs. They release the science for you
online and archive it, which is a difficult thing, but theyre
obviously in the archiving business. Im a member of the
PubMed Advisory Board and I am very proud of the move of PNAS
to PubMed Central, because I wanted to make a statement to the
about their responsibility to release
results to the world. PNAS went online free to everyone, and
we started out making articles available four weeks after the
journal had been published. That was probably a little too gutsy
on my part, so we changed that and went to six months after
articles have appeared in print. We encouraged other journals
to do the same, and some have.
Have you influenced PNAS in other ways during your tenure?
Cozzarelli: One procedural change that I instituted
had to do with a nutty tradition that had developed in science,
whereby structural biologists were allowed to publish papers
on their work, but they didnt have to tell anyone what
the data were until a year later. The idea behind that policy
was that they would protect themselves and their data
but PNAS and some other journals, and some granting agencies
and a few leading structural biologists got together and told
the structural biologists that they werent going to follow
that practice anymore. If they were going to publish, they would
have to publish their coordinates [scientific data].
PNAS wasnt the only journal to institute this change,
but we were the major journal to do it. Now only the rarest
of journals still uses that nutty system.
I also instituted a new track for articles. In the past there
were only two ways to get an article in the journal: if you
were an academy member, all you had to do was submit it
without a review
and if you were not an academy member,
it was reviewed. I made two changes: the first is that articles
by academy members must also be reviewed. The second change,
track two, is that articles are sent to the PNAS office and
then to the editorial board, and they decide whether the article
will go on for further review. If it does, they find the appropriate
members of the academy to conduct the review scientists
who specialize in that particular discipline then it
goes through a regular peer review process. So its much
more like an ordinary journal. Scientists no longer feel like
they have to ask a favor of someone in the academy to submit
How did interjournal linking come about?
Cozzarelli: We took a tough stance on the issue of interjournal
linking. 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 didnt 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. It was
another change that spread so well around the scientific community.
Today interjournal linking is routine.
Is there much demand for access to science articles online
among Third World countries?
Cozzarelli: Yes, there is some, and we give PNAS away
to Third World countries. Once I calculated how much we would
lose if we did that, and it was chicken feed in terms of the
subscriptions for developing countries. For starters, there
just arent that many scientists with paid subscriptions.
It cost us a little money for electronic publication
it isnt absolutely free but that was only something
like $20,000 a year. Our budget is around $8 million to $9 million
a year, so whats $20,000? Our president, Bruce Alberts,
is very much interested in science being an important, democratizing
influence in the developing world. If the National Academy of
Sciences doesnt do it, who will? If we arent for
science, then who is?