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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