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PNAS and Open Access

As I announced in a recent Editorial1, the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences USA (PNAS) has begun an Open Access (OA) option, whereby authors may pay a surcharge of US$1,000 to make their paper freely available on the PNAS and PubMed Central (PMC) websites immediately upon publication. The experiment will run until 31 December 2005. The PNAS will then consider ways to make the journal entirely OA, maintain the option in the same or modified form, or discontinue the option.

The experiment was approved after PNAS recently polled 210 corresponding authors regarding such an option2. Almost exactly half of the authors, who represented many disciplines, indicated they would be willing to pay for OA to their work.

The benefits to science of unfettered access to the literature are obvious and unassailable. The challenge of OA is how to pay for it. This challenge is particularly important for PNAS, which operates as a non-profit, break-even operation. While I have no doubt that OA can be made to work for most of the scientific literature, the question is how.

One possible outcome of the PNAS experiment is that the option will remain as a metastable state. I think it more likely for the journal to become solely OA over time. But authors cannot bear the whole cost. Some hybrid model for meeting the costs of publishing the journal is needed. For PNAS, the income might be from author charges, subscriptions for the print journal, foundation and grant support, advertisements and institutional support. I think that the critical step is gaining appropriate institutional support. This support might be in the form of sponsorships that could give a discount on author fees or print subscriptions. It is critical, too, for the major granting agencies such as the National Institutes of Health and the National Science Foundation to warmly embrace OA.

The OA option will supplement steps that PNAS has already taken to promote dissemination of the scientific literature, including the following:

  • By the end of this year, all content should be free online from the first volume in 1915 to papers published just six months ago.
  • The PNAS content is free on-line immediately upon publication to 145 countries that are struggling to develop their scientific infrastructure.
  • The PNAS copyright and permissions policy now makes it possible for authors and readers freely to use material published in PNAS for non-commercial use. The PNAS allows authors to post the PDF of their paper on their website, to post and update preprints, and to post webcasts. Anyone may reuse original figures and tables published in PNAS for educational purposes without having to request permission.

I will next give a series of intentionally provocative declarative statements on OA. They are coloured mostly by my career as a molecular biologist, but they are influenced by my experience as editor of PNAS for nine years and as an advisory board member of PMC and The Public Library of Science (PLoS). These comments do, however, represent my personal opinion.

1. There is no debate among scientists about the desirability of OA. Why would any scientist want their published paper to be restricted or delayed in dissemination?

2. The current system for journal subscriptions can be illogical, inefficient and unfair. Like life, the current system evolved and it works, but it can be improved. The fulfilment and maintenance of on-line subscriptions costs money, as do subscription agents. With OA, these costs are eliminated. The situation reminds me of the inefficiency of charitable giving. On average, only two-thirds of the money donated to a charity actually goes to the people or cause served by the charity. Moreover, some publishers bundle subscriptions to journals so that libraries must purchase the entire collection to get the ones they really want or pay a hefty price for cancellation.

3. The author-pays-only model for OA is unworkable, at least for the foreseeable future for any selective publication. It is disingenuous, though, to see author charges as the only way to support OA. Publication costs are a community responsibility.

4. Hybrid funding models will work. Most of the money for scientific journal publishing comes from the government or private granting agencies. OA just changes the way in which the money flows and limits waste.

5. Some journals make large profits, which takes money away from research. A small group of journals was sold some five years ago for a reported total of about 100 million dollars. That made the seller very happy but should make the rest of us angry. The purchaser will get that money back from elevated subscription and author costs.

6. The argument that OA will lead journals to accept articles merely to make money is a red herring. Some journals may choose to be non-selective for philosophical reasons and others that do so to gouge scientists should be driven out of business. But the vast majority of journals are selective to enhance the value of what they publish.

7. The term 'Open Access' should mean freely available, period. Two prominent recent examples of the use of the terms 'Open Access' and 'Free Access' confused the issues and needlessly caused hard feelings. The 'DC Principles for Free Access to Science' contained a veiled criticism of PLoS and did not move forward the discussion of OA. That is why PNAS chose not to sign the document.

The leaders of PLoS are also not without fault. They insist on a definition of OA that applies the Creative Commons Attribution License, whereby authors hold copyright and anyone is free to make derivative works or commercial use of the work. According to this restricted definition of OA, the free availability of 'Papers in Press' (papers that have been accepted and published on-line but not yet copyedited) by the Journal of Biological Chemistry (JBC) is not actually OA to the content of the journal. But surely it is. Also, papers by authors who choose the PNAS OA option are not OA by the PLoS definition, because PNAS does not allow commercial use without permission. Why in the world should the definition of OA depend on the right of commercial exploitation?

8. The past efforts of most journals to disseminate science more openly should be applauded. We should not let our excitement over OA cause us to forget other praiseworthy initiatives. Free back content was provided long before the OA movement, and the free preprints of the JBC and the free interlinking in the references of the hundreds of journals hosted by HighWire Press are laudable initiatives. Giving away content to underdeveloped countries is also widespread. However, much more should be done. In particular, all journals should deposit their content in free digital archives such as PMC, yet most have not done so.

9. Scientists have more power to change the publishing system than they think. Authors believe that the journals hold all the power regarding publication, but it is a buyer's market. Every journal, including Nature and PNAS, competes with others for papers. Authors should demand more of their journals and their professional societies, which run many of the best journals. Scientists provide content for, review for, and edit these journals. Collectively, they can make major improvements in scientific publishing. The best examples of this are the establishment of PMC and of PLoS and the OA movement.

Nicholas R. Cozzarelli

Department of Molecular and Cell Biology, University of California at Berkeley, USA ncozzare@socrates.Berkeley.edu


  1. Cozzarelli, N. R. An open access option for PNAS. Proc. Natl Acad. Sci. USA 101; 8509 (2004).

  2. Cozzarelli, N. R., Fulton, K. R. & Sullenberger, D. M. Results of a PNAS author survey on an open access option for publication. Proc. Natl Acad. Sci. USA 101, 1111 (2004).

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