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Vantage Point: Science editor-in-chief warns of PLoS growing pains


For more than a century and a half, groups of scientists have formed organizations and started journals for the primary purpose of presenting the results of their work to one another and to a larger community of interested readers. That's why the journal Science was established in 1880, and why the nonprofit American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) has sponsored it. That's also why a group of distinguished biomedical scientists, including several of our Stanford colleagues, have joined together to develop a new publication called PLoS Biology.

The plan for their new journal evolves from a strongly held view that the results of publicly supported research should be made freely available to all who wish to read them. The "open access" movement means that neither individuals nor institutions, like libraries, will pay to receive the journal through subscriptions to the print journal or site licenses for the online version. Since producing a journal requires money for editing, graphics, production and distribution, that has to come from somewhere, and the Public Library of Science (PLoS) plan is that the authors of published manuscripts will pay a fee, initially set at $1,500 per paper. That is a new and promising business plan, and the "open access" feature has been appealing to many authors and, needless to say, librarians and prospective users.

Science and many other journals published by scientific societies use a different business model. Scientist-authors pay nothing to have their papers submitted, reviewed, edited and published, save when there are color figures. Neither do they pay to have their work covered in our news or "This Week In Science" section. Instead, the costs of publication are met from several sources: membership (all AAAS members receive Science, but their dues cover that and a variety of other AAAS programs); institutional subscriptions or site licenses for the online version at 1,000 institutions; and advertising. Thus our model should probably be called "open submission."

I think it is a good thing that we will now have both models in play. PLoS has made an impressive start, with good papers, and there is every reason to wish them success. Interestingly, both ways of making scientific results available to the community are facing real challenges.

Ours is that we are already making so much of our content free to readers online that there is a dwindling incentive to subscribe to the print version. This year, downloads of Science articles online at site-licensed institutions topped 10 million; many scientists in those institutions understandably ask: "If you can get it free, why pay for it?" In fact, our research content is widely available immediately and free to most practicing scientists in the world -- either because their institutions have chosen to purchase access as a resource for its students and staff or, in the case of many developing countries, because we have provided it without cost ourselves. Since print advertising is a major part of our revenue stream and since it is linked to circulation, that's a problem for us. We also have to cover all fields of science, not just biomedicine. The author-pays model is plausible there, since National Institutes of Health (NIH) or Howard Hughes grants can easily cover the charge. In less populated and well-supported fields, such support is far less readily available.

The PLoS model also faces some problems. As their journals receive more and more submissions, as they surely will, the author-pays model gets more difficult to sustain. That's because it costs almost as much to reject a paper responsibly as it does to accept one. The higher the rejection rate, the larger becomes the expense budget that must be met from the fixed revenue from author fees. Additional costs will be added if their journal attempts, as ours does, to present news of science and perspective pieces that interpret new findings for those outside the subdiscipline.

Obviously, I hope that Science will continue to serve, as it has for many years, the world's largest general scientific society. Perhaps less obviously, I hope the PLoS experiment succeeds as well. The model they have developed deserves a serious chance, and they have been given a good leg up by the $9 million grant from the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation. If the author-pays model succeeds, it might even persuade other government research entities that are less well heeled than NIH to support publication -- so that all fields of science would be eligible.

I hope we will see a productive competition between the Science and PLoS publication models. But I know of no normative standard by which theirs or ours can lay special claim to the moral high ground.

Donald Kennedy, editor-in-chief of Science magazine, is president emeritus and Bing Professor of Environmental Science, Emeritus, at Stanford University.

Donald Kennedy