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Should the scientific literature be privately owned and controlled?

Michael Eisen and Pat Brown
Public Library of Science

Every scientist understands the importance of the scientific literature. Society spends tens of billions of dollars a year to support basic scientific research, and scientists around the world devote hundreds of millions of hours a year to research and discovery. It can reasonably be argued that the principal product of all this investment and creative activity and hard work is the world's archive of scientific literature - the only permanent record of our ideas, experimental results and discoveries, and those of our colleagues and predecessors.

At the heart of the controversy over PubMed Central, the Public Library of Science initiative and the future of scientific publishing is a fundamental question: should the scientific literature - the only permanent archive of scientific ideas and discoveries - be privately owned and controlled? By any objective standard it seems absurd that publishers should 'own' the scientific literature as their private property. Journals play an important role in producing finished scientific manuscripts - they manage peer review and the editorial process. But the creativity, intellectual content and labour contributed by the publishers is minuscule in comparison to the contributions of the scientists who provide the original ideas, conduct the work, write the papers and actually carry out the peer review by serving as reviewers. And the financial investment that the publishers contribute is tiny compared to that of the institutions that fund the research itself. Should the reward for the publishers' small contribution be permanent, private ownership of the published record of scientific research, and monopoly control over how, when and by whom a paper can be read or used and how much this access will cost? No!

Scientific progress and public welfare would be much better served by a scientific literature that belongs to the public, accessible and usable by anyone, anywhere, without barriers, charges or restrictions. Private ownership and monopoly control of the scientific literature blocks the free flow of scientific knowledge. It prevents independent creative scientists from exploring and developing new ways to integrate and organize this rich but sprawling and fragmented body of knowledge. It is unfair to scientists. It is unfair to the citizens of the world, who have paid for most of the research but are denied its full benefits. And there is absolutely no evidence that private monopoly ownership is the only practical business model.

It is ironic that the defenders of current publication practices have charged PubMed Central and the National Library of Medicine with monopolistic ambitions, because it is journal publishers who currently exercise a permanent monopoly over the distribution and use of every research article they print. At present, no-one can compete with Nature, Science, Cell, JBC, or any other journal to provide the archival reports that happen to have been published in these journals' pages. One journal's archives cannot substitute for another's, so the multiplicity of journals does not undermine this monopoly control over access. The surest guarantee against censorship or abuse of power is to avoid having any part of the archive of scientific research owned or permanently controlled by any single entity, whether a government, a scientific society, a publisher or a publishing cartel.

Ending the archaic practice of granting ownership and monopoly control of the literature to publishers would enable scientists, librarians, publishers and free enterprise to develop innovative new ways to access and use this material. We need to encourage a vigorous free-market competition based not on the value of the archive a publisher controls but on how much new value can be added to a free public resource - for example, by providing useful new tools for searching and navigating this vast body of information, or by finding new and better ways to organize and interlink it, to track the development of ideas and new understanding, to identify errors of fact or interpretation, or to add new commentaries or syntheses.

More than 16,000 scientists, from more than 139 countries, have joined us in endorsing the idea that the scientific literature should not be owned or controlled by publishers, and have backed up this belief with a pledge to support only those journals that are devoted to achieving this objective. Even the opponents of this grassroots initiative have found it hard to argue with the principle of a free and unrestricted scientific literature. They argue instead that the only viable economic model for scientific publishing is one in which the publishers get exclusive rights to distribute the papers they publish, enabling them to charge for access to this material.

We doubt this. Journal publishers provide a valuable service and they deserve a fair reward. Moreover, we recognize the important financial support that some journals provide to scientific societies and the many admirable activities that scientific societies support. Given the compelling advantages of open access, however, we believe it is time to develop alternative ways to pay for scientific publishing, and to fund the societies that currently rely on profits from publishing. Midwives have found it possible to earn a living by delivering babies for a fee and turning them over immediately to their parents. We see no reason to doubt that scientific publishing can readily operate on a midwife model, with authors and public and private granting agencies paying the journals for the peer review and editorial service they provide in delivering their reports to the public.

Indeed this model is not unprecedented or untested. In the current system, authors must bear directly the full burden of author charges (where charged), but they are insulated from the costs of subscriptions to most of the journals in which they publish their work - they can rely on institutional subscriptions. Little wonder that in this perverse economic system, savvy publishers favour subscription costs over author charges as their source of income. Yet many successful journals in the biological sciences already cover a major fraction of their operating costs through charges to authors. And there is already good evidence that many scientists would be happy to cover all costs of producing a manuscript if the finished product were immediately made available without charge to readers and databases. In January 2000, The Entomological Society of America (ESA) initiated a new service: for 75% of the price of 100 paper reprints, authors could have unlimited use of the PDF files of the archived version of their articles and ESA would provide immediate free Web access (IFWA) by making the articles freely accessible on its server. Since it was offered, the popularity of this option has been steadily growing - it is now voluntarily purchased by 41% of authors.

Publication costs would not necessarily have to be borne by individuals - institutions could pool resources to pay publication costs. Publications from scientists, institutions or countries with limited funds could be subsidized (just as access to the literature currently is). Alternatively, as Martin Blume suggests in his essay, universities, granting agencies and other institutions could sponsor journals committed to free public distribution of their contents.

We urge all scientists, scholars and interested readers to consider the important issues raised here and elsewhere on this site. This is a critical opportunity for you to play a part in shaping the future of scientific publishing. It is important that you make your voices heard - whatever your position on these issues or your vision of the future. Contact editors and publishers. Discuss your views with your colleagues. Ask yourself which journals, publishers and societies are striving for the good of science and the public, and give them your active support.