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March 3, 2004

Should publicly funded research be free and available to the public? Two prominent Stanford scientists offer their views

By Patrick Brown and Donald Kennedy

Last October, a small, San Francisco-based organization known as the Public Library of Science (PloS) shook up the scientific publishing world when it launched a free, online journal called PloS Biology.

According to the group's website, the goal of PloS Biology is to make original, peer-reviewed research papers freely available online, giving anyone with access to the Internet freedom to "read, download, print, copy and redistribute any published article, or to use its contents in derivative works, such as databases, textbooks or other teaching materials."

The PLoS board of directors promised to go head-to-head with other prestigious journals, such as Nature and Science, which require a subscription fee for Internet access, as well as written permission to reproduce any online content.

Is "open access" science publishing the wave of the future, or will subscription-based research journals remain the dominant source for peer-reviewed science?

In the following essays, two Stanford University scientists at the center of the controversy offer their perspectives: Patrick Brown, professor of biochemistry and co-founder of PloS; and Donald Kennedy, president emeritus of Stanford and editor-and-chief of the journal Science.


Last year, Harold Varmus, Michael Eisen and I founded a new nonprofit scientific publisher, the Public Library of Science (PLoS; In October, PLoS began publishing its premier scientific journal, PLoS Biology. Everything PLoS publishes is immediately available online, free of charge, with no restrictions on access or use.

Here's why: The public library, one of the greatest inventions of human civilization, has been waiting for the Internet. What seemed an impossible ideal in 1836, when Antonio Panizzi, librarian of the British Museum, wrote, "I want a poor student to have the same means of indulging his learned curiosity, ... of consulting the same authorities, ... as the richest man in the kingdoms," is today within reach. With the Internet, we have the means to make humanity's treasury of knowledge freely available to scientists, teachers, students and the public around the world. But it won't happen automatically.

Our government spends more than $50 billion a year on nonclassified research. What this investment yields are new scientific discoveries and ideas, recorded in scientific publications. The authors of these research reports, the scientists, give them away to publishers, receiving in return only an audience for their work and the satisfaction of sharing their ideas and discoveries with the world. But if your mother learns she has breast cancer and desperately wants to find what researchers have discovered about her disease, or when your daughter in high school reads a story in the New York Times about the latest research on climate change and wants to see it with her own eyes, they face a perverse and unnecessary obstacle. They, and countless others around the world who would benefit from timely access to scientific and medical knowledge, cannot freely access the published results of research financed by their own tax dollars. An ever-growing online treasury of scientific and medical knowledge is open only to the fortunate few who have access to a major university library, or who are able to pay the exorbitant access fees charged by publishers who claim the research reports they publish as their private property.

Even at Stanford, the restrictions on access prevent us from being able to search the entire corpus of scientific articles for particular terms, concepts, methods, data or images and retrieve the results -- you can't "Google" the millions of scientific articles that have been published online!

The traditional business model for scientific publishing, in which individual readers or institutions pay publishers for access to research articles, is a vestige of an era when printing articles in paper journals and transporting them in trucks and boats was the most efficient way to disseminate new scientific discoveries and ideas. When each copy cost money to print and ship, it made sense to pass these costs on to the recipients. But today, research articles are delivered much more efficiently and conveniently via the Internet. Here at Stanford, most students and faculty use the Internet to access the scientific journals to which Stanford subscribes. The Internet has transformed the economics of scientific publishing. The costs of the remaining essential functions of scientific publishers -- orchestrating peer review and professional editing -- don't scale with the number of copies distributed, but with the number of articles reviewed and published. But the benefits -- to the authors, the scientific community and the public -- grow with the number of potential readers who can access the published work. Charging for access is therefore no longer economically necessary, rational or fair -- it needlessly limits access to an essential public good.

What's the alternative? Just as midwives can earn a living without claiming ownership or control of the babies they deliver, publishers can and should be paid a fair price by the sponsors of the research -- a "midwife's fee" -- for their role in orchestrating peer-review, editing and disseminating the results. But they should not be given the baby -- our baby -- to own and control. By paying publishers for each article at the time of its publication, instead of allowing them to own the article and charge for access, the doors to the online library could be opened to everyone.

An "open access" system for scientific publishing will not entail new expenses, nor should it place a financial burden on the authors. The governmental and private institutions that finance the research already pay most of the costs of scientific publishing indirectly -- through the funds they provide to research libraries. These same institutions would accomplish far more with the same money by phasing out subscription payments to restricted-access journals and, instead, paying for open-access publication of the research they support.

An impressive and rapidly growing list of scientific organizations now advocate open-access publication. Yet, despite widespread support from scientists and the public, institutional inertia and fear of change delay its progress. We who benefit from access to great research libraries and generous public support of our research should remember Benjamin Franklin's words: "As we enjoy great advantages from the inventions of others, we should be glad of an opportunity to serve others by any invention of ours; and this we should do freely and generously."

Patrick Brown, a Stanford professor of biochemistry and co-founder of the Public Library of Science, wishes to thank Mike Eisen and Sue Klapholz for their helpful suggestions for this article. 


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.

Editor Note:

Photos of Donald Kennedy and Patrick Brown are available online at (slugs: "plos_Brown" and "plos_Kennedy").



Mark Shwartz, News Service: (650) 723-9296,

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