Columnist Lee Dye: It's Time to Make Research Free

It's an expensive process. Michael Eisen, a molecular biologist at the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory who helped establish the free online Public Library of Science estimates that it can cost from $5,000 to $10,000 to publish a single article in a journal. But once the article has been published, it can be produced on line for a small fraction of that.

Eisen and Cozzarelli discussed their ideas recently in an interview published online by U.C. Berkeley. It's free, by the way.

Both contend that the problem essentially is one of inertia in the publishing community, and there are other ways of paying the costs of producing a journal. But some journals have become so prosperous that they make millions for their publishers, whether they be commercial houses or nonprofit organizations.

"Many of the noncommercial publishers run by societies have used journals as cash cows," Cozzarelli says. The money is used to support the organization and its members, but Cozzarelli thinks that's an inappropriate use.

"It seems to me that the cost of the journal should reflect what it costs to produce it and nothing more," he says. He argues that the most likely source of journal revenues in the future will be the authors themselves. A scientist who wants his or her work published will have to pay the price in sort of a reverse royalty system.

The cost of publication should be included in the funding for the research, he says. So if the National Science Foundation wants pay for somebody to study the sex life of anchovies, the grant should also include the cost of publishing the results.

Power of the Web

Cozzarelli and Eisen contend that various foundations have also shown an interest in sponsoring journals, thus opening another avenue for revenues. And of course there's always stuff like advertisements and subscription fees for people who feel they have to hold the journal in their hands.

And the journal could keep exclusive rights to the article for four or six months, so anyone who feels really desperate will need to cough up the money for a subscription.

After that period, it could be made available free on the Internet at very little cost. The high cost is in the hard copy, not the online edition. Cozzarelli says his budget at the Proceedings runs about $8 million to $9 million a year, and the online cost is only around $20,000.

My guess is that this is an inevitable change. There will be much resistance, especially from the more profitable publishing empires, but the Internet will outlast them all.

Sometimes, even scientists and their sponsors have trouble recognizing that.

Lee Dye’s column appears weekly on A former science writer for the Los Angeles Times, he now lives in Juneau, Alaska.

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