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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Since that first incredible day, the publishers' Web servers have yet to again crash from overactivity. Still, the Public Library of Science's first year has been, by all appearances, a success. PLoS Biology scored a major coup in its second issue: A Duke neurobiologist ran his paper on how lab monkeys bearing brain implants had learned to control robotic arms with, as the Associated Press put it, their thoughts. The researchers considered it a big step toward providing paralyzed people with brain-controlled prosthetic limbs. The New York Times gushed that the paper would have been "a shoo-in for acceptance in premier journals like Nature or Science."

Despite such victories, there are still plenty of doubters out there. Traditional publishers express skepticism as to whether PLoS and its author-pays business model can maintain high-quality science in its journals. "We don't know what the implications are or what bias is in the publishing system if the author is paying and not the reader," argues Marc Brodsky of the Association of American Publishers. "Right now, there's some selectivity, and the publisher has to publish quality stuff or no one's going to buy it. If the author is going to pay, where is the quality screen going to be? Just on, well, who pays?"

Eisen disputes the notion that PLoS is a vanity press for scientists. The review process is thorough and stringent, he says. In fact, he personally has had two papers rejected by the PLoS review board.

The fledgling publisher, meanwhile, has plenty of fans out there rooting for the success of its journals, and open-access publishing in general. One is Dr. Lawrence Pitts, a professor of neurosurgery at UCSF. Pitts is chairing the new Academic Council Special Committee on Scholarly Communication, a thirteen-member group of UC academics and librarians looking at long-term solutions to budget-busting subscription rates. He says scholars are becoming increasingly aware of the economic perversions of the publishing business and tell him, "'I'm not here to make money for Elsevier. '" He points to a boycott of Elsevier's Cell led last fall by two UCSF researchers fed up with the system. The boycott helped university negotiators win a major concession earlier this year, when Elsevier agreed to a five-year deal that cuts UC's annual toll for the publisher's online and print journals from $10.3 million to $7.7 million. Now UC bookworms are in heated talks with Blackwell Publishing, another for-profit journal publisher, to lower its rates.

With all the stir about open access, some traditional publishers are rethinking their options. Another idea coming into vogue, a sort of compromise between the conventional and PLoS models, is the "author chooses" concept, in which a researcher can voluntarily pay to make his paper freely available online. That model is being "explored" by several journals, including Physiological Genomics, according to an NIH report.

It's still too early to tell whether PLoS has a sustainable business model. Critics say the real test for the young publisher will come after its $9 million grant runs out. "PLoS is highly subsidized," Brodsky says. "They are not making it on their $1,500-an-article charge yet." Another publisher has told science reporters that operating on the PLoS model would cost him $10,000 per article.

Ever the salesman, Eisen doesn't let the criticism get him down. He's thrilled, in fact: PLoS Biology has been more successful than he ever expected. And next month the publisher will release its second title, PLoS Medicine. Slowly but surely, Eisen feels like he's changing people's minds in the science world -- his brother's, for one.

Jonathan, in a big-time epiphany at a scientific meeting, finally came around and published his paper on the male-hating bacteria in PLoS Biology. What's more, he decreed that his lab would thenceforth publish only in journals that provide free public access to the data.

The wholehearted sibling conversion, of course, was no guarantee that PLoS would survive, but for Michael Eisen, it was a very, very good sign.


The Politicians Weigh In

Science journals battle an NIH proposal that calls for free access to federally funded research.

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