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

A few leading scientists are asking a simple question that could have a profound impact on how information about scientific research is disseminated. Here's the question:

Why shouldn't scientific research be available to anyone anywhere in the world, free of charge?

Even taxpayers who foot the bill for research sponsored by such institutions as the National Science Foundation and the National Institutes of Health still have to pay to see the results of that research, one way or another.

Making that data freely available to anyone is an idea that would have gotten nowhere just a few years ago. But the Internet has changed that. Free online access to those pricey professional journals in which scientists report their findings could allow a biologist in Afghanistan, or a doctor in Peru, or Joe Sixpack in California to tune in to what's going on in the world of science.

And it shouldn't cost any of those folks a nickel.

Free Research For the People

But here's the hitch. Although many scientists support the idea of free access, scientific publishing is big business, and sometimes very profitable, so understandably not all publishers are anxious to give their product away when they can charge a substantial subscription fee instead.

Why would anyone pay for something if they can get it for free? And if they can't collect from their readers, how would those important journals pay their own bills?

They can do so by completely restructuring how they do business, according to Nicholas Cozzarelli, a biochemist at the University of California, Berkeley, and editor in chief for seven years of the prestigious Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. Cozzarelli put his money where his mouth is by making that journal free online, and he has managed to convince a few other journals to do the same.

But most, including the major leaguers like Science and Nature, have declined to do so.

Access to journals is important because they are as essential to the scientific process as microscopes, telescopes and powerful computers. The preferred way for a scientist to disclose his or her findings is by publishing them in a peer reviewed journal.

When a paper is submitted to the journal, it is sent out to other experts in the same field for their comments. Eventually, if the paper is judged to have merit, it is published, thus sharing the research with other professionals. It's not a perfect system, because it can be influenced by professional biases and old-boy-networks, but it serves as sort of a scientific safety net. It's hard to slip really bad research through a jury of your peers, although that does happen from time to time.

Publishing in a journal means the research has withstood a major test, and the work is taken much more seriously. Many science writers, including myself, are uncomfortable writing about work that has not been peer reviewed. Knowing that competing researchers in the same field find the work of merit is reassuring, thus increasing the odds that it will be further disseminated through the lay press.

Paying to Publish

So the journals play a critical role, but many of them are so expensive that even major libraries have to limit the number of subscriptions. Journals that deal with highly specialized subjects can be especially pricey, yet indispensable to researchers.

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.