With a $9 million, 5-year grant from the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation, Nobel laureate Harold Varmus and other biologists are setting out to publish an "open-access" biology journal. Their aim is nothing less than to "create a new economic model in scientific publishing"--a low-cost operation that will not charge for articles but would pay its way with authors' fees (estimated at $1500 per article initially).
The effort is organized by Varmus, president of the Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center in New York City, with Patrick Brown of Stanford University and Michael Eisen of Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory in California. In 2000, the trio organized a movement called the Public Library of Science (PLOS) to push for open-access publishing. Their international appeal garnered 30,000 pledges, including a commitment to boycott journals that do not make their content available for free. That threat fizzled because authors didn't have a good alternative journal to turn to. But "now we have one," says Varmus: PLOS Biology, to appear in late 2003. Next will come PLOS Medicine.
The aim is to promote change, Eisen says: "This will greatly improve access to the scientific literature by placing it in a central database" that can be searched online and downloaded. As former director of the National Institutes of Health, Varmus tried to start a government-funded journal of this type, but it didn't attract many manuscripts. A U.K. private venture along similar lines, Biomed Central, "hasn't taken off," Varmus notes, but he suggests that the PLOS journal will do well because "we're going to start at the top" with well-known authors. The group has already won support from the Howard Hughes Medical Institute in Chevy Chase, Maryland, which has agreed to give each of its 350 elite investigators a $3000 annual allowance to publish articles in a journal like PLOS Biology.
Reaction is mixed. Rick Johnson, enterprise director of the Scholarly Publishing and Academic Resources Coalition, views the announcement as a "shot in the arm to the whole movement to open access." A more circumspect Marc Brodsky, executive director of the American Institute of Physics--a major scientific publisher--says the PLOS leaders "are learning that there is no free lunch; publishing costs money." It remains to be seen, Brodsky says, whether top scientists will want to pay the publication fees PLOS intends to charge.