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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Ego and prestige have long played a major role in scientific publishing. Prior to the Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society of London, or Phil Trans as those in the know call it, there had been no public registry of discoveries, according to science historian Jean-Claude Guédon, a professor at the University of Montreal. Fights broke out over who "owned" a discovery. Phil Trans not only broadcast new discoveries, it kept intellectual turf battles out of the public eye. And it established itself as "the arbiter of innovations," Guédon wrote in the October 2001 Association of Research Libraries newsletter. "The multiplication of printed copies and their dissemination throughout Europe ensured the validity of the claim. ... Through peer review, it could confer a form of intellectual nobility upon individuals. Thus was established the game of science, whereby giving away what one had discovered was paradoxically the best way to ensure one's intellectual ownership of it. ... A complex mix of excellence and elitism ensued that has accompanied science ever since."

Over time, the link between publishing and career success solidified -- hence the axiom "publish or perish." Through the years, of course, some journals developed better reputations than others, and publishing in the big-brand journals promised more lucrative career rewards.

The problem with that system, in Eisen's view, is that scholars believe they got tenure or a great job because they had a paper in Nature or Science. They got those gigs, he says, because they did great science, and great science will "rise to the top" regardless of whether it's published in Nature or, well, PLoS Biology. But persuading colleagues on that point is a hard sell. "The mentality that you have to publish your papers in the best possible journal in order to advance your career or get tenure or whatever, that mentality is deeply entrenched in the scientific community," Eisen says.

To give PLoS the requisite branding, Eisen and his partners took a page from the commercial publishers by recruiting some of the top names in the business. They persuaded Lee Hartwell and Richard Roberts, both winners of the Nobel Prize for medicine, to lend their names to the editorial board of PLoS Biology, and another Nobelist, Joseph Goldstein, for the board of PLoS Medicine, a new journal set to debut next month. In January 2003 they lured Vivian Siegel, the editor of Cell, a top-shelf Elsevier product, as the new executive director of PLoS. They also brought on editors from other prominent publications, such as Barbara Cohen, former editor of Nature Genetics.

Eisen, Brown, and Varmus were able to attract such big names in part by appealing to their recruits' higher scientific calling: For knowledge to progress, information needs to be freely available and not hoarded by publishers. "As a scientist, I believe the business we are in is communicating science," Cohen explains. "Opening it up as much as possible was attractive to me."

But it took more than noble intentions to snag such talent. The PLoS founders needed money -- a lot of it. Eisen says the trio drew up a business plan with the hope of securing seed funding from a foundation. The plan was to print a regular glossy color magazine like Science or Nature, with science news and hardcore research papers, but also research summaries that would translate the highly technical papers into lay terms -- making PLoS a sort of hybrid between Science and Scientific American. Although the monthly journal would be free online, libraries, researchers, and lay readers could subscribe to the print version at the eminently reasonable rate of $160 per year.

The model presented a conundrum, though. Since PLoS wasn't going to rely on pricey subscriptions and online licensing fees, Eisen would have to show potential benefactors how the nonprofit could survive on its own. Even without a print version, after all, a science journal incurs substantial costs for space, equipment, salaries, production, and general overhead -- and here PLoS was proposing hard-copy publications as well.

The new publishers swiped a page from BioMed Central's model in which the scientists themselves must pay to cover publication costs -- the current figure of $1,500, they note, may change as the true cost per article becomes more apparent. Eisen knew the fee would be the most controversial element of the proposal. Still, he felt it made perfect sense. Taxpayers were already paying billions for the research via NIH grants, and then paying again for high-priced subscriptions that limited public access to the results. The PLoS founders proposed that researchers simply write the publishing fees into their grant proposals -- and on the other end, scientists and lay readers alike could access the articles for free.

The trio shopped their proposal to the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation, the family charity established by the founder of Intel. The foundation bit, and the trio walked away with a $9 million grant to establish PLoS. "They had a lot of enthusiasm for the idea," Eisen recalls. "We showed them that this was ultimately going to be a self-sustaining enterprise."

By October 2003, there was a lot of buzz about the debut of the new open-access "prestige" journal, PLoS Biology. The cover of the first issue touted a paper involving DNA analysis of Borneo elephants, which are genetically distinct from other Asian elephants. Among the authors -- who covered topics from diabetes genetics to gene expression in malaria to mathematical modeling of chemical communication between cells -- were scientists from prestigious research universities including Princeton, Cambridge, UC San Francisco, Stanford, and Harvard Medical School. There was also a message from the founders: "Today, with the launch of PLoS Biology, we take on a new role as publishers, to demonstrate that high-quality journals can flourish without charging access."

The three made a convincing pitch: They cited, for instance, how the establishment of a central, open repository for DNA sequences during the 1980s has led to innovations that have greatly advanced our understanding of molecular genetics. "Imagine how impoverished biology and medicine would be today if published DNA sequences were treated like virtually every other kind of research publication -- with no comprehensive database searches and no ability to freely download, reorganize, and reanalyze sequences," they wrote. "Now imagine the possibilities if the same creative explosion ... were to occur for the much larger body of published scientific results."

The publishers also argued that asking research sponsors to cover publication costs up front was a no-brainer. Grant-givers already pay these costs, they noted, via the elevated licensing and subscription fees researchers and institutions typically include in their grant proposals and budget requests.

Eisen felt the journal had made a solid debut, but he was still nervous. After all, his own brother had refused to run a paper in PLoS, and Eisen took that as a bad sign. But on the day PLoS launched online, its Web site was overwhelmed with so many hits that its server crashed. The science world, clearly, was paying attention.

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