PLoS Won

When Pat Brown, Harold Varmus and I started the Public Library of Science (PLoS) 10 years ago with the goal of making the scientific and medical literature a universally freely available resource, most people in the science publishing industry dismissed us as naive idealists who didn’t understand that publishing is a business that has to make money, or derided us as dangerous radicals hellbent on destroying them.

So it has given me considerable pleasure to watch, over the past year or so, as one traditional publisher after another has responded to the smashing success of PLoS One by launching direct ripoffs that seek to capitalize on the business model we have established.

For those of you who don’t know, PLoS One, launched in 2006, does things a bit differently than most scientific journals. Every paper submitted to the journal is peer reviewed, but the reviewers and editors consider only the technical merits of the paper in deciding whether or not it should be published – they do not attempt (as virtually all other journals do) to gauge the potential significance or sexiness of the paper. The result is a simple and objective peer review process that gets papers published quickly and, because it is an open access journal, in a place where it is accessible for anyone to find and read. To cover the costs of running the journal and handling the paper, authors of accepted papers pay a fee (currently $1,350 – he money comes from their research grants or institutions, not from their own pockets, and any authors who say they can not pay are granted waivers).

And apparently authors love PLoS One, because they are sending us lots of paper. The journal published 6,700 articles in 2010 and will publish around 12,000 in 2011. This has clearly caught the attention of lots of established publishers, as the past year has seen the launch of a series of PLoS One clones, including:

joining already existing offerings from open access publishers BioMed Central, Hindawi and others.

This is, in many ways, exactly what we hoped would happen. In 2001 most publishers lacked both the foresight to see how publishing could better serve the research community, and the incentive to bother figuring it out. Now, PLoS One’s volume, and the threat it poses to their existing journals, provides the motivation, and PLoS One’s financial success (it is profitable) serves as an inspiration. Our goal was always to see that papers were published in open access journals. If they were PLoS journals – great. But if they were from other publishers – that’s great too.

And here, there is a bit of a rub. PLoS and BMC established the standard for open access publishing by adopting the Creative Commons Attribution License (CC-BY), which allows for unrestricted reuse and redistribution subject only to the constraint that the original authors and source be cited. Several of the new journals follow our lead and use CC-BY, including G3, Open Biology and SAGE Open. I fully endorse what these publishers are doing, and have already published one paper in G3.

The others have not been so enlightened, using exclusively (or in one case optionally) licenses that restrict commercial reuse or the generation of derivitive works.


CC-NC-SA – mBio, Biology Open

CC-BY-NC-ND – Scientific Reports

CC-BY or CC-BY-NC-ND – Cell Reports

This is a very misguided decision on the part of these publishers. The rules governing reuse of content matter a lot if we are ever going to start making more effective use of the published scientific literature. The non-commercial licenses employed by BMJ, Nature, ASM, Company of Biologists, Cell Press and Nature all – rather absurdly – prevent PLoS from reusing their content in tools we are developing to help researchers organize literature in their fields and make the contents of papers they care about more useful. I hope this is a short-lived mistake and that, following Netflix, they realize the error of their ways and switch to a CC-BY license (in the meantime, I urge people who care about open access to continue supporting only those journals that use the CC-BY license).

There is, obviously, still a long way to go before we achieve our original goal of making every paper immediately freely available. Buit it’s hard not to see events of the last year as anything but a major victory for PLoS and open access.

Happy Open Access Week!

[UPDATE: I want to clarify that Cell Reports does not view itself as a PLoS One clone, as it will be rejecting papers on the basis of impact/importance. I also want to commend them for offering the CC-BY license to authors, although I think that many will naively choose the NC version].

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