For biologist Michael Eisen, the ultimate test of his plan to radically change the future of science came down to convincing his skeptical younger brother to print a breakthrough paper in Michael's unproven research journal.
It was the fall of 2003, and PLoS Biology was set to debut in a matter of weeks. This was the first journal from the nascent Public Library of Science, a nonprofit cofounded three years earlier by Eisen, a 37-year-old Lawrence Berkeley Lab scientist who moonlights as an assistant professor of genetics and development at UC Berkeley. He and his partners hoped to revolutionize academic publishing by making their contributors' research papers immediately available for free on the Internet. It may not sound revolutionary, but in the billion-dollar business of scientific journals, giving the public free access to publicly funded research was, well, a radical notion.
Michael's brother Jonathan Eisen, an investigator at the Institute for Genomic Research in Maryland, was adding the finishing touches to a paper detailing the complete genome of a strain of male-targeting bacteria called Wolbachia. The bacteria infect insects, spiders, and worms, and can kill a male host or even convert it into a female. It was too late to get Jonathan's paper in the debut issue, of course -- peer review and editing of a science paper can take months -- but as research articles go, this one had sex appeal, and Michael wanted it for PLoS Biology.
Jonathan was already being courted by editors from Nature and Science, the gold standards of the science literature. Every young scientist dreams of being published in these journals, the latter of which was started by Thomas Edison. Such a feat is considered a big plus for career advancement, future grants, and tenure, not to mention a chance to impress your friends at dinner parties. For Jonathan to choose PLoS Biology over Science would be like an investigative reporter running a groundbreaking story on Salon when The New York Times Magazine was asking for it.
Michael hoped to make his journal just as prestigious, which would take time under the best of circumstances. But to even have a prayer, the first issues of PLoS Biology would need to scoop the competition and publish some of the hottest research around.
Easier said than done. Scientists are a pragmatic and risk-averse bunch by nature, collectively about as quick to change course as an oil tanker. Eisen cajoled, even begged his colleagues to take a risk on PLoS. Not surprisingly, many refused. That's when Michael started pestering Jonathan. "I knew if I couldn't convince my own brother to do it, that was a bad sign," he recalls.
He chose an inopportune moment to broach the subject: the first game of the 2003 divisional play-off series between the A's and the Red Sox. Hailing from Beantown, the Eisen brothers are Red Sox fanatics. Michael had gotten tickets to the game at the Oakland Coliseum, and Jonathan flew out from Maryland to attend. "I was very animated since it was only a few weeks before the launch of PLoS Biology," Michael says of their brotherly exchange at the game. "I had recently lost a few papers from friends or colleagues, and I was a bit pushy about it. It didn't help my sales pitch that the Red Sox blew a late lead and lost in extra innings on Ramon Hernandez' bases-loaded bunt."
When it came down to it, Jonathan, who had previously agreed to be listed as a member of PLoS Biology's editorial board, just didn't see what was so wrong with the status quo. To him, it seemed as if plenty of stuff was already available online. "My gut instinct was that open access to publications wasn't really necessary," he recalls. There was also the matter of his collaborators. Even if Jonathan changed his mind, that didn't mean he could change his colleagues' minds, especially the more junior researchers who would want to pad their résumés by saying they had published in Nature or Science.
In short, Jonathan told his brother no.
The curtain of beads hanging at the entrance to Michael Eisen's office at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory alerts visitors that there's a quirky man inside. A stack of beer cans, gathered as collectibles back when he was too young to drink, confirms what the beads hint at. Appearances aside, Eisen is a respected scientist and has the citations to prove it. In the world of science, researchers gauge the success of their papers not by how many people read them, but by how often they are cited by colleagues in their own published work. His 1998 article, "Cluster Analysis and Display of Genome-Wide Expression Patterns," has been cited 2,500 times -- the most ever for a paper in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, he says.
Eisen's team studies how genes are expressed in different types of tumors, and attempts to unravel the molecular mechanisms by which yeast cells respond to changes in their environment. But the scientist is best known these days for his advocacy of "open access" publishing. "Our detractors often like to accuse us of being ... idealistic communists," he chuckles. In fact, a leader of the opposition refers to the publishing model as "socialized publishing." Eisen looks over his shoulder at the poster for the Italian Communist Party on his wall: "I know this poster in my office doesn't help -- it's just aesthetic."
Eisen's big revelatory moment came just as scientific publications were first going online in the late 1990s. He was then doing cutting-edge genetics research as a postdoctoral student in the lab of his Stanford University mentor, Patrick Brown. With science publishers making the leap online, Eisen figured he could devise a computer program to cross-reference research data from various online sources, but was stymied by subscribers-only copyright protections. "A lightbulb went off in my head," he recalls. "I was like, 'Jesus, this is just ridiculous. '"
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