Why I, a founder of PLOS, am forsaking open access


I co-founded the Public Library of Science (PLOS) in 2002 because I believed deeply that the open access publishing model PLOS espoused and has come to dominate was good for science, scientists and the public.  Over the past decade open access has become a personal crusade – my own religion – one I have fervently promoted here on this blog, on social media, and to thousands of colleagues at meetings and social engagements. To back up my commitment to open access, since 2000, I have exclusively published papers from my lab in open access journals, and have urged – some might say hectored and harassed – my colleagues to do the same.

But in the last few weeks I have had a major change of heart. Yesterday at group meeting I told the members of my lab that they are free to send their papers to any journal they want to – including (and especially) the previously reviled especially Nature, Cell and Science. I am announcing this here today because I have been so publicly associated with open access, and I felt I owe my readers and the community an explanation for why I have made this dramatic change.

The most immediate reason is that, to be honest, I’m jealous. I just got back from the annual fly meeting in San Diego. Throughout the meeting – after talks, in the poster sessions and at the bar – people kept coming up to me and telling me how much they love our work, how they’re using our data, our methods or our ideas. But these words of praise rang hollow, lacking as they did that glint in the eye people get when they say “I really loved your Nature paper”.

It used to be cool to publish in PLOS. The small band of early open access adherents  – identifiable by our gaudily colored, slightly risqué  t-shirts (“Where would Jesus publish?”) – were everyone’s favorite rebels with a cause. Maybe people didn’t share our willingness to stand up to The Man. But they wished they did. And we had their respect.

But now those t-shirts are ratty, and PLOS has become The Man. Its reviews are slow. Its editorial decisions are capricious. And, frankly, nobody ever really cared about whether the public could read their papers anyway.

What people do care about is the cachet that comes from having an overworked editor at one of the big three journals decide that their paper is “The One”. I could see it in my students’ and postdocs’ eyes every time we passed by an adoring horde gathered round the latest winner of the great “Science, Nature and Cell” game, listening to them tell tales of how they worked the latest buzzwords into their abstract and buried all their confusing data in supplemental materials. Who am I to deny this joy to the young scientists who have entrusted their careers to me, just because I don’t think it’s “right”?

And who’s to say what’s right anyway. I’ve been going back over the last several years of posts from The Scholarly Kitchen. And when I listen to what they – especially Kent Anderson – say free of the haze of an open access zealot they start to make a lot of sense.

First of all, the whole idea that the public is clamoring for free access to the scientific literature is a pipe dream. Sure PubMed Central – the free database of papers produced with funding from the National Institutes of Health – gets over 1,000,000 hits a day. But do you really believe numbers from the government? After all, these are the same people who are saying that 7,000,000 people have signed up for Obamacare. The open access lobby can always dig up some people – cancer patients or something like that – who have benefited from open access. But we never hear about the people who’ve been hurt – like all the students at places like Harvard and Stanford who no longer have better access to the scientific literature than hoi poloi at lesser institutions.

And now that I’ve had a chance to think about it, it makes no sense to wrest the system of forging new scientists, making promotions and assigning tenure at institutions of higher learning away from the for-profit corporations that control it today. Who’s going to do it instead? Scientists???? Have you been to a faculty meeting? Or served on a study section? These kind of decisions are best left to people who are far removed from the messy details of the science and who care primarily about making money – only they can be truly objective.

I have come to appreciate the important role that prestigious journals like Science, Nature and Cell play in filtering out bad science, and protecting both the public and other researchers from wasting their time reading about – or following up on – results that are not believable. You have all, undoubtedly heard about recent studies examining the reproducibility of scientific results. For example, a recent Nature paper [paywalled, so you can believe it] described how scientists at drug company Amgen were able to successfully replicate six of 53 landmark studies in cancer research.

As these were landmark studies, most were published in the highest profile subscription journals. And these results prove that – contrary to what I would have expected – the top subscription journals doing a great job of picking papers. First, Amgen, who doesn’t like to waste their money, found 53 of these studies important enough to try to replicate. I don’t think they’ve bothered to try even a dozen PLOS ONE papers. But more amazingly these scientists at Amgen were able to get the same results as important academic scientists OVER ten percent of the time. This means that the papers must have described the methods extremely clearly – a hallmark of high profile journals.

Finally, there’s the issue of money. Funding agencies and universities across the world spend over $10,000,000,000 a year subscribing to research journals in science, technology and medicine that publish, collectively, about 1,500,000 articles (or around $6,500 per article). We all know that the point of economies is to expand, and journal  publishing has been doing its part, with costs increases exceeding inflation (meaning it is growing fast!) every year for the past few decades. But imagine what will happen if we switch to universal open access as I have been advocating. Everyone agrees that open access journals charge scientists a lot less than $6,500 to publish their papers. So, if we start publishing more open access papers, we’ll be spending less money (a LOT less if publishers like PeerJ get their way) for every article, and therefore LESS money on publishing. This is called contraction, and it’s what caused the Great Depression.

This is why I now strongly support CHORUS – the publisher’s answer to calls from Congress and The President to provide better public access to government funded research. CHORUS will provide people with access to papers after a delay – timed to ensure that no subscription revenues will be lost. Thus for the entire period of time when articles are actually useful to people they will be behind a paywall where they can generate money for the economy. This makes sense, whereas using “open access” publishing to make these articles immediately freely available to everyone at a lower cost clearly does not.

I have a lot to answer for. I want to apologize to all the people who have followed me into the abyss of open access. All I can say is that I meant well, and that I hope you will forgive me for the joy I have taken out of your lives and for the broken dreams of the career you could have had if you’d only published your postdoc paper in Cell.

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  1. Posted April 1, 2014 at 12:58 am | Permalink

    I hadn’t even noticed that the clock had turned over and I saw the headline and thought, ‘Well, that’s kind of a dick move, they just named a conference room after him…’

    Love when I get snookered that way.

  2. Posted April 1, 2014 at 1:09 am | Permalink

    We at Scholarly Soup Kitchen support your brave and selfless move. We’ve also changed our views dramatically – this time to be Open. http://blogs.ch.cam.ac.uk/pmr/2014/04/01/scholarly-soup-kitchen-welcomes-new-hefce-openaccess-repository-and-hargreaves-copyright-reforms/ . If we didn’t have people like you changing sides we’d have no reason to continue. Publishing must always be a complex battle – it’s too special to allow moral or ethical considerations to dictate what we do.

    Let’s welcome another 50 years or muddle and fudge!

  3. Rob Knell
    Posted April 1, 2014 at 1:40 am | Permalink

    Love it. Kudos for non-tautological use of “hoi polloi” as well.

    Rob Knell

  4. nfgjn
    Posted April 1, 2014 at 1:43 am | Permalink

    Would’ve been a good April fool if wasn’t so smug.

  5. Yves Brun
    Posted April 1, 2014 at 2:43 am | Permalink

    Nicely done! I would have thought what the &;($@ for a few paragraphs if I hadn’t seen the date.

  6. Posted April 1, 2014 at 3:39 am | Permalink

    sounds like you’re also forsaking biology and applying for a position with The Onion…

  7. Comradde PhysioProff
    Posted April 1, 2014 at 4:45 am | Permalink

    Dude, you forgot that you are closing your blogge in shame. Go Yankees! Redde Sockes Sucke!

  8. Andrew
    Posted April 1, 2014 at 4:46 am | Permalink

    Wow. Wait, what date did you post this convincing about face?

  9. Kat
    Posted April 1, 2014 at 4:53 am | Permalink

    April fools right lol 🙂

  10. Posted April 1, 2014 at 4:55 am | Permalink

    That was awesome

  11. Posted April 1, 2014 at 5:19 am | Permalink

    OK, I admit it, you got me. I was all ready to think about the sweeping changes an admission like this would make in the life science industry…

  12. Anony
    Posted April 1, 2014 at 5:27 am | Permalink

    I am not sure if this is an April fools prank or not but I will take your word and assume you are totally serious. I am a university professor at an mediocre university in the third world country. We don’t have money, not even to subscribe to Nature and clan. The students and faculty rely heavily on open access journals like PLoS and are very grateful to people like you who believe in this cause so passionately. I am sure I am talking for a large part of the developing world when I say this. Please don’t be disheartened/misguided just because you don’t see how well open access services are being used.

  13. April F
    Posted April 1, 2014 at 6:02 am | Permalink

    Friggin April fool. Can’t believe I read the whole article.

  14. Paulo Ruiz-Grosso
    Posted April 1, 2014 at 6:51 am | Permalink

    Hi, very interesting perspective. Coming from a middle income country (Peru), I would dare to ask what would you suggest for new investigators here, who wishes to publish their papers in the highest profile journals, but would also like the content of their papers to be available to the population that might get more of it. Open journals usually now have a paywall before publishing an article (which can or can not be waived depending on journal and a little bit of luck), which makes non-funded research very difficult to get to publish anyway. So in one hand you can submit to a “regular” journal, and a good % of the individuals that might use the information will not be able to access it, and in the other the open access journals might just charge you about 2 times your salary to get it published.



    • Paulo Ruiz-Grosso
      Posted April 1, 2014 at 11:08 am | Permalink

      ok, got me 🙂

  15. ann viera
    Posted April 1, 2014 at 7:19 am | Permalink
  16. Posted April 1, 2014 at 7:40 am | Permalink

    Nice one !!

  17. ads
    Posted April 1, 2014 at 9:15 am | Permalink

    I do hope this is an April fool joke!

  18. Mathias Klang
    Posted April 1, 2014 at 10:00 am | Permalink

    My heart skipped a beat before I realised…

  19. Ritesh Agarwal
    Posted April 1, 2014 at 10:12 am | Permalink

    Got me…

  20. Philip Bernstein
    Posted April 1, 2014 at 10:45 am | Permalink


    PS Was the reported Red Sox lost to the Orioles an April Fool’s joke?

  21. Devin Midura
    Posted April 1, 2014 at 11:52 am | Permalink

    This had me fooled until I reached the part about how impressive it was that over 10% of studies were replicated.

  22. Posted April 1, 2014 at 8:32 pm | Permalink

    Frankly, this is a very touchy issue. The ecosystem of access to published literature and scientific publishing is not the same as it was back in the day. Biol. Abstracts/Chem. Abstracts/Current contents anyone?

    Remember a couple of crucial yet counteracting points…

    1) Funded work needs to be accessed by everyone (at least affordably). Also, if it is funded by the taxpayer, then everyone should have access to it.
    2) Nothing comes without a cost (OK… that was philosophical! and Real!). There is no free lunch. Remember it also costs to maintain a good peer-review system besides sucking up the publishing costs.

    Speaking of which, the peer-review system has been hijacked. They have always been the non-paid yet overworked group while being the most crucial in the line of defense against biased work (just instruments and data don’t make up science). Tell me how many of us have been paid by a journal for peer-reviewing (besides having an ego trip). Even being an Editor is not such a financially rewarding one.

    So that leaves us with developing a business model that

    1) Does not bleed the underfunded labs.
    2) Sustaining the publishing houses and the haloed peer-review system

    Armchair points, you may say, but let a discussion like this focus on these points (and ones I haven’t yet brought up) rather than simplistically arguing one vs. the other. I am trying to keep the points crisp simply because a whole thought process gets underway.

  23. Posted April 1, 2014 at 8:53 pm | Permalink

    You missed one argument against open access: there is too much stuff to read. If papers get secured behind paywalls then I can skip reading it, save lots of time, and get more work done. I am sure many others feel the same way.

    Plus, this helps science reporters who can get access to paywall articles. They can interpret those articles for the rest of us. That boosts employment for reporters while lightening the reading load on the rest of us. That’s great.

  24. claudia silva
    Posted April 2, 2014 at 5:27 am | Permalink

    Shouldn’t research funded with public money be REQUIRED to be published in Open-access journals??

  25. Posted April 2, 2014 at 1:32 pm | Permalink

    You !#%$^ :D. I bought into your April Fool’s prank and posted a response on my blog post :D. Jokes apart, you did raise some important issues which remain unchanged.

    More than asking if it should it be open access or not I guess its important to ask what standards are being set as this movement continues to evolve in an unregulated fashion. Scientific publishing world needs to have an real open discussion about this and set clear standards for the sake of good science..

  26. P. Campbell's ghost
    Posted April 3, 2014 at 1:17 am | Permalink

    Apology accepted. I’m thinking of setting up an elite – and very expensive subscription-only journal – I’d love to have you on the board. Let me know…

  27. Posted April 3, 2014 at 3:59 am | Permalink

    NOT ALL THAT GLITTERS (April Afterthoughts)

    Brilliant spoof, Mike, and a host of valid financial as well technical points.

    But it is again all focused on Gold Open Access journals, not on Open Access itself.

    Authors don’t have to switch journals or pay extra to provide and mandate Green OA (self-archiving of articles published in any journal).

    And, technically speaking (quality, peer review), there’s no evidence that the Gold OA journals are any better than the non-OA journals. (And the Beall bunch of Gold OA journals have not been getting the greatest report cards either…)

    And there are many long-standing, field-specific non-OA journals with long-standing track records for high standards rather than Nature/Science glitz and hype. (I’m not sure, either, whether the undeniable public interest in research related to personal health generalizes to the vast portions of biomedical and non-biomedical research that are not related to human health.)

    And it’s not clear how authors choosing to publish in Gold OA journals while most journals are still non-OA saves money, rather than costing even more money: institutions must still pay their must-have subscriptions (so their users retain access to the incoming articles in non-OA journals) on top of whatever is being paid for Gold OA for outgoing articles.

    Nor is it clear that the per-article revenue for Gold OA journals, though lower than the average non-OA journal article revenue, is anywhere near the price it could be if all articles were Green, so Institutional Repositories could do all the access-provision and archiving, and the only thin journals had to do or charge for was managing the peer review).

    This is why I’ve taken to calling post-Green Gold OA “Fair Gold” OA, in contrast to pre-Green “Fool’s Gold” OA.

    (But I’ve resisted the temptation — because I really think it would be unfair and misleading — to entitle this posting “April Fool’s Gold.” It’s not a foolish picture, but it’s certainly not the fullish one either…)

  28. Enrique Martin-Blanc
    Posted April 3, 2014 at 6:43 pm | Permalink

    Mike, at the beginning I thought you got nuts!!!!!! Overhere fools’ day is on December 28th, Innocent Saints’day!
    Keep going!

  29. Posted April 4, 2014 at 5:16 am | Permalink

    You have just admitted that you have lost the fight against the big connercial publishers… Sad day.

  30. Posted April 4, 2014 at 8:17 am | Permalink

    Brilliant, dude. Utterly brilliant.

  31. Posted April 21, 2014 at 12:58 pm | Permalink

    Multilevel marketing comes to scientific publishing – Frontiers or some other reasons why open access requires constant vigilance

  32. Posted May 12, 2014 at 4:42 pm | Permalink

    Based on Professor Eisen’s post, I suggest he also c0nsider publishing in the nee biology section of the Wall Street Journal, “W-Life.”

    W-Life articles are remunerated based on 5% of whatever Mr. Murdock makes off of the published papers. Categories include: immortality, climate denial, creation science, and voodoo economics.