Publisher for the People 

Biologist Michael Eisen hopes to accomplish for science publishing what Linux set out to do for computing.

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For Eisen and fellow critics of Big Publishing, the access issue cut to the heart of what science should be versus what it has become. The argument goes like this: The goal of research is to improve our knowledge. It's a cumulative process in which discovery begets discovery as scientists build on the work of their predecessors. But to unravel the mysteries of life and the cosmos, researchers need access to all available information, and that means journals, the main medium by which scientists communicate. By limiting public access now that electronic distribution is available, the journal industry is effectively working against the larger goals of science.

A key drawback with the current model, according to Eisen and fellow revolutionaries, is that the public is getting double-billed: We pay for basic research up front through government grants and are then charged an arm and a leg to view the results. The National Institutes of Health shells out $24.6 billion annually for biomedical research that winds up being reported in about sixty thousand papers, which publishers then copyright and sell back to universities and research institutions at a premium. For example, a one-year subscription to the journal Nuclear Physics A & B costs UC Berkeley's library $23,820. That's the same price as a 2004 Toyota Camry Solara. And these things add up fast: The University of California spends $20 million a year on journal subscriptions.

Eisen likens the publishing industry to a corrupt midwife. "If you were a midwife, you could run a pretty good business," he says, "in which you delivered a baby and then you took the baby and said you owned it. Then you made the couple pay you to get access to the baby. You could make a lot of money that way, but no one's going to let you get away with it because it's insane."

But this is not necessarily a sane market. UC Santa Barbara economist Ted Bergstrom poses this hypothetical: If a Volvo cost four times as much as a Saab, but the Volvo wasn't as good, a rational car buyer would get the Saab. That logic doesn't apply in the academic world. "If one journal costs four times as much as another journal, but the journal wasn't as good as the other one," that won't matter to a university library, Bergstrom says. "Serious institutions are going to buy both of them."

Perhaps not coincidentally, the numbers -- and often, the prices -- of available journals have skyrocketed. There are now tens of thousands of academic titles in circulation, and between 1986 and 2002, subscription costs increased at three and a half times the rate of inflation, according to the UC Office of Scholarly Communications.

As a result, libraries have had to cancel less-desirable journals and even cut back on buying books to keep up with the must-have journals and online subscriptions. "It's not reasonable to expect that our institutions can afford to buy all the materials that are out there," says Karen Butter, a librarian at UC San Francisco.

With research libraries in crisis mode, faculty members, who seldom pay for journal subscriptions out of their own pockets, have become aware of the peculiar economics afoot and have begun to weigh in on the debate. This has cast a spotlight on the industry's largest publisher, Amsterdam-based Reed Elsevier.

Elsevier is to open-access advocates what Clear Channel or Rupert Murdoch are to media-monopoly critics: a symbol of all that is wrong with mass communication today. The company's science and medical unit alone publishes some 1,200 journals, in addition to CD-ROMs and online article databases. Elsevier's top-performing division in 2003, it exhibited solid growth and boasted profits of $837 million on sales approaching $2.5 billion, an operating margin of nearly 34 percent.

But librarians say even certain not-for-profit societies are part of the problem. Butter notes that scientific societies often subsidize their other activities with revenue from journals they publish. On her list of overpriced titles is Science, the journal of the nonprofit American Association for the Advancement of Science, which bills itself as the "World's Largest General Scientific Society." UCSF pays $11,000 annually for its online subscription.

Elsevier and other publishers justify their prices by pointing out that they are printing more pages than ever to accommodate all the new research being done. Marc Brodsky, who chairs the executive council of the professional and scholarly publishers' division of trade group the Association of American Publishers, says having more papers submitted jacks up the costs of doing business -- more editing, more vetting. "You're not only paying for papers, you're paying for papers that you don't see," he says. "It costs us more money to reject an article than to publish an article."

For Eisen et al, however, the rise of the Internet and electronic distribution has cast doubt on the big publishers' justifications. Distribution costs, they argue, should plummet with online delivery, but rather than expanding public access to the archived science literature, journal publishers have adapted by throwing up electronic barriers and making people pay big bucks to get past them. They negotiate multimillion-dollar licensing deals with libraries for online access, and charge individuals as much as $30 in some cases to download a single article -- a figure that would quickly become prohibitive to a junior researcher on an academic fishing expedition, or someone with a rare disease looking for articles on the latest treatments.

It was against this backdrop that Eisen and his cartel-busting partners set out on their quest to challenge the way the industry functions. But while they found no shortage of moral support among their peers, they soon discovered that such support doesn't equate to action, for while scientists grumble aplenty about the dysfunctional world of academic publishing, they are in fact its greatest enablers.

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