Scientific publishing may never be the same again if a group of crusading researchers have their way.
Just as the Internet transformed the way the public gets information, the founders of the nonprofit Public Library of Science (PLoS) want scientific research to be freely available to everyone.
Instead of paying for access to scientific research locked in subscription-only databases controlled by leading scientific journals, they want open access to scientific literature.
"We are hoping to drive a change in the business model across all of scientific publishing," Vivian Siegel, the executive director of the journal PLoS Biology, told Reuters.
Launched in October, it is the first peer-reviewed journal produced by the San Francisco-based organization. PLoS Medicine is due to be launched next year and other specialist publications are also planned.
Unlike the major peer-reviewed scientific journals, which publish research submitted by scientists and charge subscriptions or fees to access database information, PLoS Biology has opted for a different approach -- an "author pays" policy.
It charges the researchers $1,500, or whatever they can afford to pay, for each study it decides to publish, and the research is then available in an open-access database.
"We use author charges to cover the cost of the peer-review process and production through the online version," said Siegel, a former editor of the journal Cell.
Peer review is a system in which submitted research is reviewed by a panel of experts who judge its scientific value before it is published.
PLoS has also received a $9 million start-up grant and additional donations from foundations and individuals, but the organization plans to be self-sufficient in five years.
Realignment of power
The move toward open-access scientific publishing began in the 1990s when scientists doing research in the United States realized they could not get to data they needed because it was behind subscription barriers.
"The first step they took was to circulate a letter among the community asking publishers to change their practices. Not change their business models entirely, but to open up access to the literature after six months of publication and to deposit that literature into a public-accessible database which could then be used for text mining," said Siegel.
More than 30,000 people signed the letter that sparked a debate about open-access publishing. Some publishers changed their practices but the major players were resistant to any upheaval in the way they do business.
"It was clear that the vast majority of publishers, in particular the larger publishers of archival information, were resistant to this as an idea," said Siegel.
Scientists -- eager for the prestige of publishing their research in topnotch journals which is a plus for winning grants and furthering their careers -- were left with no choice but to work within the current system.
"There is a lesson here that publishers who apply a user-pays model have failed to take seriously -- the emergence of author power," Peter Horton, the editor of medical journal the Lancet, said in a commentary in a recent issue.
"Simply handing over an article's copyright to a publisher is, for many academic leaders, no longer acceptable," he added.
Stranglehold on information