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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UC Santa Barbara economist Ted Bergstrom served for many years as a "referee" for economics journals, giving them recommendations on which articles to publish. Reviewing an article would take him a full day or more, but it was something he did for free. Then, around five years ago, he learned of the outrageous subscription rates being charged by these journals. "I really got resentful that I was doing this donated work for profiteers," he recalls.

Bergstrom isn't the only one. It's customary for academics to volunteer their time to do such peer reviewing and sometimes even editing for journals. It's all in the name of furthering higher knowledge. Academic journals, after all, weren't always a multibillion-dollar business. One science historian refers to the collegial early days of academic journals as a "gentleman's publishing club."

For nearly three centuries following the 1665 debut of Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society of London -- the father of the modern peer-reviewed journal -- science publications were largely put out by universities or nonprofit societies. That began to change after World War II, when the federal government began funding more basic research. With so many new papers being written, the small scientific societies couldn't keep up.

That's when commercial interests such as Elsevier stepped in to fill the void. In a response to a Bergstrom paper critical of subscription prices, Joop Dirkmaat, an Elsevier publisher, wrote that "most of the Elsevier journals and other commercial journals mentioned were started at a time when university presses and other 'not-for-profit' organizations were not prepared to assume the entrepreneurial risks. Elsevier recognized an opportunity.

"It would be peculiar," he wrote, "for economists to object to firms earning a profit through risk taking and foresight in an industry that has traditionally had relatively low barriers to entry."

Though the company might indeed have taken risks, Eisen notes that commercial publishers have built an empire on the backs of scholars who donate their labor. "Journals are dependent entirely on the goodwill of the scientific community," he says. "If the scientific community decides to stop sending articles to a journal or stop reviewing for them, or stop being their editors, they'd disappear."

By the fall of 2000, Eisen's efforts to reform the publishing industry had so far come up short. He did, at least, have two prominent scientists in his camp: his old Stanford mentor Patrick Brown, and Nobel Prize winner Harold Varmus, who served as director of the National Institutes of Health under President Clinton. The trio decided to try and get the scientific community to stop enabling what they considered a dysfunctional system. They circulated an open letter via e-mail asking scientists to boycott any publication -- meaning they would not submit papers or act as a referee -- that didn't make the full text of its papers available for free on the Internet within six months of publication. The six-month window, they figured, was a reasonable compromise that would allow publishers to maintain their proprietary claim long enough to make a profit.

The response was overwhelming. More than thirty thousand scientists from around the world signed the petition. To accommodate the volume, Eisen created a Web site, the Public Library of Science (PLoS.org), where people could add their names. The petition was an astounding success. Or so it seemed.

After six months passed with almost no publishers making their articles available for free, few scientists actually boycotted the journals. Eisen had predicted the boycott would create a schism between for-profit and not-for-profit publishers. He'd hoped the not-for-profits would side with the good guys and thus isolate commercial publishers as the forces of evil.

After six months passed with almost no publishers making their articles available for free, few scientists actually boycotted the journals. Eisen had predicted the boycott would create a schism between for-profit and not-for-profit publishers. He'd hoped the not-for-profits would side with the good guys and thus isolate commercial publishers as the forces of evil.

Didn't happen. "Scientists were left at the end of the day with a choice between publishing in an existing journal or not publishing anywhere," the researcher says. "The reality is, you can't do that. Scientists have their careers to deal with, and they have to publish."

The truth is, scientists did have a choice. There was already a well-known open-access publisher out there, the UK-based BioMed Central, but it didn't have the kind of rep that got you tenure at Harvard, as Eisen puts it. After the boycott's failure, Eisen, Brown, and Varmus realized the solution was to become publishers themselves, producing free, stringently peer-reviewed online journals in which any scientist would be proud to publish. "We realized that we had to create a journal that would compete for the best papers, that would establish the kind of snotty, selective reputation" needed for success, he notes with a chuckle.


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