Changes are being forced in costly journals

Medicine & Science

August 16, 2004|By Julie Bell | Julie Bell,SUN STAFF

Manuel Llinas knew his career was at stake.

The young scientist had just finished work on an eye-catching paper on the genome of a parasite that causes malaria. Now he and his lab director faced a critical decision: where to submit the article for publication.

A prestigious journal such as Science would draw attention and help Llinas when he interviewed for faculty jobs at top research institutions. But Llinas and Joseph DeRisi -- his mentor at the University of California, San Francisco -- chose the once-unthinkable: They submitted the paper to PLoS Biology, a free online journal that had yet to publish its first edition.

"To publish in a journal that had no history was a bit unsettling," said Llinas, whose work got him a Princeton University assistant professorship. "But I knew it would be seen."

For more than 100 hundred years, publication of major scientific and medical breakthroughs has been concentrated in a handful of prestigious journals. They have been the world's primary window into discoveries including the structure of DNA and the configuration of the human genome.

But the reach and power of the Internet, rising subscription prices and pressure from patients are forcing changes in the world of scientific publishing. Those changes, advocates say, may end a publisher's paradise, in which knowledge of cutting-edge research is initially available to only those who can afford to subscribe.

The shift to open access, as scientists call it, comes as universities rebel against rising subscription costs and scientists chafe at paying for access to research that builds on their own work. One oft-given example: The journal Brain Research has an institutional list price of $22,386 a year.

`Financial barrier'

"Open access removes a major financial barrier that prevents scientists in resource-poor institutions from reading up-to-date scientific literature," said Raphael D. Isokpehi, a Nigerian microbiologist and a postdoctoral fellow at University of the Western Cape in South Africa.

Isokpehi, who is trying to build on work from DeRisi's lab, was delighted to see the paper on the Web. "I believe this is the end of molecular colonialism," he said.

Patient advocates are also a powerful force in the Web publishing movement. They insist on easy, searchable access to the results of taxpayer-funded studies. "Some of that stuff could make the difference between whether someone lives or dies, or the quality of life," said Lynda Dee, president of AIDS Action Baltimore.

Dee and other patient advocates support a House Appropriations Committee recommendation that would make research funded by the National Institutes of Health freely available on the Internet no later than six months after publication in a peer-reviewed journal. Peer-reviewed journals publish research only after it has been vetted by fellow scientists, a practice designed to weed out sloppy work.

Dee wants to make taxpayer-funded articles available to all as soon as they're published. But nonprofit publishers of some top journals, including Science and The New England Journal of Medicine, say they need subscription fees to pay for the process of reviewing and publishing research.

Publishing fees

Some among the 1,100 or more open-access journals available avoid this problem by charging researchers a fee to publish their articles instead of charging for subscriptions. The Public Library of Science, parent of PLoS Biology and PloS Medicine (scheduled to launch in October), charges researchers $1,500 but waives the fee for those who can't afford it.

That system isn't better, said Dr. Gregory D. Curfman, the New England Journal's executive editor. He argues that having researchers pay for publication creates a potential conflict of interest: Will publishers subconsciously select articles based on the author's ability to pay?

"As an editor, I don't like the feel of authors' providing the financial underpinnings for the journal," Curfman said. "If you want to add a new section ... you would have to increase the author fee or increase the number of papers we publish." That, Curfman says, could mean publishing papers of lower quality.

Even so, many librarians and publishers acknowledge that publishing must evolve. One reason: Even large research institutions such as the Johns Hopkins University are finding it increasingly difficult to pay for journals.

Hopkins spent $7.2 million on books and subscriptions during the 2002-2003 academic year. It has identified 75 journals that it may drop to save money in negotiations with the Amsterdam-based publisher Elsevier.

That tactic doesn't always work, however, in part because publishers such as Elsevier -- a division of Reed Elsevier, whose 1,700 journals include Brain Research and The Lancet -- base their pricing on bulk discounts. Research institutions sometimes buy hundreds of titles from Elsevier. But when they try dropping titles to save money, the cost for the rest goes up.

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