Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Of Citizenship and Software

What is the role, purpose and point of software? Most people might assume that question to have an obvious answer: as the Berkman Center for Internet & Society puts it, software is “the programs or other ‘instructions’ that a computer needs to perform specific tasks. Examples of software include word processors, e-mail clients, web browsers, video games, spread sheets, accounting tools and operating systems.”

What this description omits of course is human agency, which ultimately determines what software does, how it does it, the degree to which it supports or undermines the rules and laws of society, and how it encourages or discourages ordinary citizens to participate in the process of defining those rules and laws.

Lawrence Lessig came to understand the power of software to construct and shape our world when he was (briefly) “special master” during the Microsoft antitrust case. As he later put it to me, “[Y]ou can code software however you want, to produce whatever kind of product you want. And that capability is unique with software: you can't, for instance, say that an automobile will be something that is a transmission and a radio wrapped in one. But you can do exactly that with software, because software is so plastic.”

As such, he added, the Microsoft case was just “a particular example of a more general point about how you need to understand the way in which technology and policy interact.”

Yet, as more and more of our lives are organised and controlled by computers, and the role that software plays in society becomes increasingly central, most people still assume that the virtual world that opens up before them when they switch on the computer, and the choices they are offered onscreen, is how things are and ought to be — not a consequence of the way in which the underlying software has been coded.

Most of us now realise that there are bad guys in cyberspace — people who will try to steal your identity, or harass you in some way — but we too often fail to understand that the computer-generated world we enter, and what it does and does not allow us to do, has been specifically constructed to behave in that way. It is not the way things inevitably have to be, but the way someone has decided to code the underlying software. Importantly, how software is written also has a direct impact on our lives, and the world we inhabit off-screen.

For that reason the software choices that individuals, companies, organisations and governments make have important political, economic and social consequences for us all.

Yet when we attend a basic computer course we are instructed how to point and click, how to send and receive email and, perhaps, how to create a simple database — but we are not told why our choice of software is important, why it is imperative to insist that our governments and political administrators use open data formats, and why software raises important ethical issues.

Importantly, it is not made clear to us that we can challenge the way in which software is written and used.

Frustrated by the limits and inadequacies of most computer courses Marco Fioretti, a former telecom engineer based in Rome who teaches about digital rights issues, has added to his repertoire a basic online course on digital citizenship.

The course, which is open to everybody, will not teach students how to code, or send email, says Fioretti, but how computers impact on and determine what happens in the real world and how, by means of active citizenship, we can help shape and influence that process, and create a more democratic world as a result. As he puts it, “Understanding digital issues is no longer optional for citizens. It's necessary whether one likes computer or not.”

Below Fioretti explains the background to his course, and the thinking that lies behind it. Unsurprisingly, we learn that Fioretti has been influenced by Richard Stallman and the Free Software Movement, although he is not an uncritical fan.

Monday, March 14, 2011

The Demise of the Big Deal?

Claudio Aspesi — an analyst based at the sell-side research firm Sanford Bernstein — predicts a difficult future for Reed Elsevier, particularly for its scholarly journal business. He also predicts the demise of the Big Deal, the business model in which scholarly publishers sell access to multiple journals by means of a single electronic subscription.

In a report published last year Aspesi warned that a combination of the global financial crisis and the rise of the Open Access (OA) movement would impact negatively on the revenues of scholarly publishers. Yet, he said, Reed Elsevier appeared to be "in denial on the magnitude of the issue potentially affecting scientific publishing".

A year later Aspesi appears even more gloomy. In his most recent report he has downgraded Reed Elsevier to “underperform”, and warns that the widely-used “Big Deal” arrangement, is becoming “unsustainable in the current funding environment.”

While the Big Deal may have worked well as a solution for over a decade, he says, we can expect to see research libraries start cancelling their contracts — a development that will “lead to revenue and earnings decline”.

Speaking to me last week Aspesi repeated his belief that Reed Elsevier is in denial. “[I]f management has a Plan B, they have certainly kept it under wraps, and everything they have said supports my current view that they are in denial”, he told me.

Of course Reed Elsevier is not the only publisher threatened by the current climate, and clinging in desperation to the Big Deal. When I spoke to the CEO of Springer Derk Haank last year, for instance, he told me that it was “in the interests of everyone — publishers and librarians — to keep the Big Deal going.”

Unlike Elsevier, however, Springer embraced OA seven years ago.

Cleary these are difficult times. And the nub of the matter is money: With the number of research papers produced annually constantly rising publishers expect to increase their prices each year to reflect that rise. And the Big Deal, they believe, is the best way of ensuring they can do this, while providing research institutions with access to the greatest number of journals.

Librarians, however, are adamant that prices must fall. To that end library organisations like Research Libraries UK (RLUK) — which represents the libraries of Russell Group universities — have begun organising public campaigns designed to pressure big publishers to end up-front payments, to allow them to pay in sterling, and to reduce their subscription fees by 15%.

The RLUK campaign is being led by Deborah Shorley, the director of Imperial College London Library. “[T]he fact is”, she said recently, “we don’t have money in the sector and we can’t afford to go on spending as we have.”

Meanwhile OA is both a threat and an opportunity for scholarly publishers, and Reed Elsevier should have embraced it by now, says Aspesi.

OA advocates want to see all papers arising from publicly-funded research made freely available on the Web. Green OA, or self-archiving, would see researchers doing this themselves, and so pose a significant threat to publishers’ revenues.

For that reason, suggests Aspesi, Elsevier should have pre-emptively experimented with Gold OA — or OA publishing — as Springer did. By levying a fee for publishing papers, rather than a subscription to read them, publishers can hope to reduce costs, and perhaps maintain their current profit levels as a result.

But there are no certainties in scholarly publishing today. And while many in the research community also believe that OA publishing offers the best long-term solution, it is far from evident that it will resolve the affordability problem. It could also lead to a decline in the quality of published research.

Either way, prices look set to fall over time. This would inevitably mean a decline in the revenues of scholarly publishers.

In short, both scholarly publishers and the research community are caught between a rock and a hard place. For researchers, suggests Aspesi, it may mean having to accept that they will be able to publish fewer papers in the future.

Aspesi explains why in the email interview below, conducted at the end of last week.

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Claudio Aspesi

RP: Bloomberg reported in February that Elsevier’s most recent profits are up more than 60%, to $1.03bn. In a report published last week, however, you downgraded Elsevier to “underperform”. Why?

CA: There are several reasons, but it ultimately boils down to two. The stock market is a powerful discounting mechanism for future events: a company can be performing very well but have a share price that overvalues the future (or perform very badly but have a share price that undervalues the future).

In the case of Reed Elsevier, I believe that market expectations about the future of Elsevier are too optimistic. In addition, I have concerns about the future performance of other parts of the portfolio (like their US legal business) that also lead me to think the stock is overvalued.

RP: In your report you say that the days of The Big Deal are coming to an end. The death of the Big Deal has been long predicted. Why do you think we have finally reached the “crunch point” as you call it?

CA: I think there are three trends overlapping: a long term unsustainable trend, a cyclical funding crisis and a more tough minded and analytical community of librarians.

Revenues for STM publishers have been rising faster than library budgets for many years, and librarians have had to cope with this discrepancy by cutting back their spending in other areas.

We can all speculate whether this could have continued indefinitely or not, but it does not really matter: the financial crisis has led to widespread cuts in library budgets, forcing research libraries to take a harder look at what they spend on serials.

Overlay to the funding crisis the realisation that Big Deals forced librarians to take journals that nobody (or almost nobody) really accessed and you set up a perfect storm.

RP: The consensus is that Elsevier will see 4% growth in 2013. You predict only 2%, possibly lower. Is that correct?

CA: Yes. Please bear in mind that Elsevier also sells books and databases and electronic retrieval services, and I expect these businesses to prove more resilient over time. It is the Big Deal itself that looks increasingly under pressure.

The funding issue

RP: When I spoke to Springer CEO Derk Haank at the end of last year he described The Big Deal as the “best thing since sliced bread”. He added: “The truth is that it is in the interests of everyone — publishers and librarians — to keep the Big Deal going.” What is he not seeing that you see?

CA: The funding issue. Of course — from a publisher’s perspective — to be able to gain some revenues, any revenues, from journals which were not really read is terrific. We have seen the usage data of some universities and found that as many as two thirds of the titles in some Big Deals were accessed once a month or less.

I suspect that many librarians, if they run the numbers, will find that one third or less of the titles they acquire through Big Deals really matter to their user community.

But it was nice for librarians to be able to offer “everything” to their users. They did not consider that the Big Deals were depriving libraries of the funding needed for other activities.

Professor Darnton of Harvard University published in December 2010 an article in the New York Review of Books (The Library: Three Jeremiads) which captures perfectly the impact of publishers revenue growth on academic libraries and on the academic press.

RP: Haank pointed out to me that the number of research papers is growing at 6% to 7% per year. “Librarians need to accept that if they want access to a continually growing database, then costs will need to go up a little bit,” he said. “We try to accommodate our customers, but at a certain point, we will hit a wall.”

This seems to be the nub of the problem: Publishers are processing more and more papers each year, and so they expect to raise their prices. But the research community insists that it cannot afford to pay any more. Nevertheless, Haank assumes that eventually more money will be found. As he put it, “[O]ver time, I expect people will realise that scientists have to have sufficient funding to keep abreast of new developments.”

You, however, believe that publishers will simply have to accept that their revenues are going to fall, because there really is no more money?

CA: I have no doubt that — over time — adjustments would be made. But it remains to be seen if they need all the 2,200/2,400 journals that the each of the largest publishers maintain today.

You know, my job is not to pass judgement on how people run their business or to decry capitalism, only to advise investors whether they should buy or sell stocks.

I can observe, however, that there is something unhealthy about an industry which has managed to alienate its customers to the point their membership associations increasingly focus time and attention on how to overturn the industry structure. It is not a good thing to have your customers spend their time trying to put you out of business.

No Plan B?

RP: In a report you published last June you said that Elsevier was in denial about the situation. In this report you argue that even though the company was aware of the current problem as early as 2005, it ignored it. Is that correct? Why do you think they have no Plan B — as you put it?

CA: I dug out a presentation that Reed Elsevier organised for investors back in 2005 on Elsevier. At the bottom of a slide titled “Attractive Growth Markets”, and dedicated to show how global university and R&D funding were growing between 5 and 8% a year, was the sentence “Although library budgets have not kept pace: 1-3%”. If they thought they needed to address this issue, it did not show in the following years.

To be fair, the financial community also ignored that line. In my recent report, I quoted one of my own reports from December 2007 in which I wrote “Elsevier has still enjoyed a healthy underlying growth rate of 5%...We expect these levels of revenue growth to be sustained going forward”. I am just as guilty of ignoring it as everyone else.

RP: If you too were wrong in 2007 it is presumably possible that your assumptions are wrong today?

CA: Of course. I wish I could always be right.

But if management has a Plan B, they have certainly kept it under wraps, and everything they have said supports my current view that they are in denial. My report opens by quoting David Prosser, the Executive Director of Research Libraries UK, who told the Wall Street Journal back in November 2010 “We do not wish to cancel big deals, but we shall have no alternative unless the largest publishers substantially reduce their prices”.

Somehow, this issue has to be addressed; Elsevier may be in a better position than me to answer why they are not.

RP: I wonder if Elsevier might be stuck on the horns of a dilemma: They have to keep delivering profits for their shareholders, and this may be restricting their ability to do the right thing for their long-term future.

CA: Again, I think it would be interesting to know what the top management of Elsevier thinks is the right thing for their long term future. More of the same? Hope that funding returns to libraries by the end of 2011 so that the storm blows over? Go back to the 1-3% libraries funding growth that was already putting publisher revenue increases on a collision course with library budgets?

In Haank’s own words “We will hit a wall”. Does Elsevier think that walls stand only on the path of other publishers?

Open Access

RP: In September last year Elsevier launched its first Gold OA journal, The International Journal of Surgery Case Reports. Was that a good move on their part? Should they be doing more of that?

CA: Excellent companies experiment and try new concepts all the time.

RP: Does Open Access publishing offer a solution to the current difficulties confronting scholarly publishers? Some argue, for instance, that OA could provide them with the same revenues as they currently get from the Big Deal. Moreover, since some/much of the costs would be met by research funders, rather than libraries, new money would flow into the system?

CA: I have asked myself that question several times. Publishers talk about tapping the larger revenue streams that come from the funding of science, and Open Access would seem a logical way to do that.

I think what holds them back is the fear that the transition will be long and messy, with many researchers unable to secure the funding to pay for publication fees. Moreover, some journals with very high impact factors probably reject so many submissions that the publication fees would have to be absurdly high.

RP: In your earlier report you said that the real threat comes from self-archiving. Has that threat grown or eased in the last year would you say?

CA: It is remarkable how slowly the world of academic publishing changes from year to year. Just to show examples from a business we are all familiar with, at least to some extent, 12 months ago the iPad did not exist, Nokia was a well-liked mobile handset manufacturer, and so on; a year later, everyone talks about tablets and apps and Android.

Somehow, the academic community moves at a glacial pace. It is no wonder that investors decided that Open Access will never happen: they are used to seeing most activities and businesses change constantly.

RP: Can I push you on whether you see self-archiving as a greater or lesser threat than a year ago. Essentially we are talking about the growth of self-archiving mandates.

CA: Even on mandates we have seen little progress. There have been several new mandates from both public and private institutions, but there is such a patchwork of mandates (and little transparency on the compliance) that I doubt there is a single research library that has changed its buying patterns to reflect the new or the cumulated mandates.

An aggressive US Federal Government mandate could change that, both because it would affect a significant amount of research and because the rest of the world would likely feel pressured to follow suit. Even so, if the embargo of copyrighted material was long enough, the impact would be negligible.

RP: What are the implications of the current situation for the research community?

CA: If the Big Deal goes away altogether, fewer journals will be sustainable, which means that less research will be published. This headline sounds threatening for the research community, until you ask yourself how much of the research which is being published today is actually read. My guess is that if fewer subscription journals are published, something else will take their place, probably a combination of Open Access journals and self-archiving repositories.

If, on the other hand, only a meaningful portion of the Big Deals are discontinued, the publishers will be faced with the dilemma of whether to cull marginal journals or not, since they support their pricing for the portion of the market which would still buy Big Deals. My guess is that truly marginal titles would be discontinued, but it would be difficult to cut most.

RP: As you say, most articles are not read, and so librarians are currently paying for products that their patrons don’t use. One could perhaps argue that in an OA environment this would not matter since the customer becomes the author, not the reader, and authors have to publish to get promotion and tenure. As such, reading is not as important as publishing, and given the publish-or-perish pressures they are under one might assume that researchers would inevitably find the money to publish, even if it meant taking it from their own pockets. If correct, this suggests that publishers could preserve their revenues by embracing Gold OA?

CA: I am always puzzled by the hostility of the leading publishers towards Open Access. As you point out, there is no reason why revenues, over time, could not be roughly equal for the two models. I suspect the hostility derives from the need to operate in a period of transition that is difficult to manage. The fog of change can be daunting.

RP: Some in the research community warn of the danger of a catastrophic collapse of the scholarly communication system. Might they have a point?

CA: Yes and no. It is clear that if 15 to 30% of the academic publishing industry revenues were to evaporate over a three to five year period, the industry would have to slim down substantially.

Lower revenues would lead to fewer articles being published, and probably lower profits. Lower profits and dimmer prospects for profit growth may in turn lead to less investment in innovation as investors would demand that less capital is allocated to an industry with less future profit growth. Does this mean that there would be no innovation? Not necessarily.

Again, I suspect that other models could emerge to fill the space: Open Access journals, repositories, and perhaps some we cannot even imagine today.

A bubble

RP: So how would you characterise the current situation with regard to scholarly journal publishing?

CA: I will use an analogy that may be imperfect, but which contains some lessons. For a very long time, the music industry sold to consumers more music than consumers really wanted. It did so by forcing consumers to buy albums even when they may have just wanted one or two songs; in fact, it killed the single because it was not profitable enough, in spite of the fact it had always been very popular with consumers because it was cheap and it contained the music they wanted.

Then consumers figured out they could rip music from CDs, put it on a hard drive, and burn it on a blank CD. If their friends did not have the tracks they wanted, they could even go to peer to peer sites and get all the music they wanted, and — even better — it was free.

Physical piracy and peer to peer distribution of music did lead to the catastrophic collapse of the music industry in many countries because the revenue base shrank to the point that it became impossible to sign up artists and produce albums. But the music industry is still in existence, albeit on a much smaller scale, and an endless stream of innovators is trying to find ways to revive it with all kinds of new consumer propositions.

Perhaps there is too much research being published today, and the value of the long tail of research is probably modest. This industry benefitted — just like many others — from a bubble, and that bubble has now burst. But the basic demand for dissemination and retrieval of important scientific and medical research is still there, and I am confident it will continue to be fulfilled.

RP: Do you still think that Reed Elsevier should go for a “progressive divestiture”, as you suggested last year?

CA: It all depends on the value of the sum of its parts at any given time. Last time we calculated it, back in January, we decided there was a 15/20% upside to the share price — meaningful but not staggering. I can think of companies in my coverage where the upside would be as much as 50 to 60%. In any case, Reed Elsevier management seems to show no inclination to pursue this path.

RP: Thank you for your time.

Claudio Aspesi’s latest report can be accessed here.

Tuesday, March 08, 2011

PLoS ONE, Open Access, and the Future of Scholarly Publishing: Response from PLoS

Last year a researcher drew my attention to a row that had erupted over an article published in the Open Access journal PLoS ONE. Believing that the row raised some broader questions about PLoS ONE, and about Open Access, I sent a list of questions to PLoS. The publisher eventually declined to answer them, sending over a statement instead. I nevertheless decided to write something, but sent a copy of what I had written to PLoS before publishing it. And I invited PLoS to comment on what I had written. Below is the publisher’s response:

We were disappointed to see Richard Poynder’s current article about PLoS, but grateful that Richard sent us a draft, so that we could prepare a brief response.

Richard is absolutely correct about one thing – we at PLoS are really committed to open access, and we are doing our absolute best to inspire a broader transformation in scientific communication. We make no apology for that. We expect to be watched and scrutinized and indeed have been the subject of some criticism over the years, but not at the length or with the amount of negativity that we see in Richard’s essay.

Much of the article focuses on PLoS ONE and Richard uses some selected examples (about 5 of them) from the more than 17,000 peer-reviewed articles that we’ve published in PLoS ONE to draw much broader conclusions about the quality of its content. Although we would be the first to agree that PLoS ONE isn’t perfect, neither is any journal, as Richard points out – although not until around 30 pages into the article. But, just to quote one statistic, is it not more striking that of the 4400 articles published in PLoS ONE in 2009 around 55% of them have been cited 3 or more times (Scopus data)? The evidence points to the fact that PLoS ONE is attracting a vast amount of high-quality content.

PLoS ONE is attempting to challenge the conventional model of a journal. The peer review criteria for PLoS ONE are focused on rigour, ethical conduct and proper reporting. Reviewers and editors are not asked to judge work on the basis of its potential impact. Our argument is that judgments about impact and relevance can be left (and might be best left) until after publication, and this argument is clearly resonating with the tens of thousands of researchers who work with and support PLoS ONE as authors, reviewers or editors. It’s now also resonating with many other non-profit and for-profit publishers who are exploring the same model.

We do not argue that the PLoS ONE approach is the only way to publish research, and indeed we view PLoS ONE as just one aspect of a much more fundamental transformation of scholarly communication.

Another aspect of that transformation is in the assessment and organization of research findings, which is currently done using conventional journals. That’s why we have launched article-level metrics and PLoS Hubs as new and alternative approaches to post-publication evaluation. There will be much more to come from PLoS and many other innovators.

At several points, Richard’s article uses quotes from staff, press releases and so on that are now several years old and misses the point that much has changed even in the short few years since PLoS ONE launched. We are learning all the time from PLoS ONE. His frequent quotes from PLoS staff also show that we’ve answered many of his questions (including some less than friendly ones) over the years.

Nevertheless, he places great emphasis on the fact that we declined to answer a set of more than 20 detailed and complex questions about general aspects of PLoS ONE, as a follow up to a series of exchanges about the peer review process on a particular PLoS ONE article about which there was some disagreement. Indeed we posted a comment to try and clarify the issues in light of Richard’s questions, and comments from researchers. We were surprised by the number and wide-ranging nature of Richard’s subsequent questions about PLoS ONE, and chose not to answer them because we felt that the issues surrounding the PLoS ONE article were closed. If Richard had signaled his intention to write a lengthy article about the history and status of PLoS at the outset of the exchange, our response might have been rather different.

But the more significant point is that PLoS ONE has evolved since its launch. We did originally place a lot of emphasis on ‘commenting’ and ‘rating’ as tools for post-publication assessment, but we rapidly realized that much commentary and other activity happens elsewhere. If we could capture this activity and add it to the PLoS articles (in all our journals), that could be a powerful approach to post-publication assessment, and could also be used to filter and organize content. Thus, the article-level metrics project was born. The PLoS ONE editorial and publishing processes are also under constant review and revision as the journal’s size and complexity has grown, and we post some updated general information about these processes on the PLoS ONE web site.

Another theme in Richard’s article is whether PLoS ONE represents value for money. PLoS Journals are an ecosystem and they all contribute to the whole, both financially and to PLoS’ reputation and brand. Looked at in isolation, PLoS ONE, as well as the Community Journals (PLoS Genetics, PLoS Computational Biology, PLoS Pathogens and PLoS Neglected Tropical Diseases), all make a positive financial contribution to PLoS. They help to support PLoS Biology and PLoS Medicine, as well as the development of the journal websites and other important initiatives such as article-level metrics, PLoS Hubs, PLoS Currents and our work on advocacy. From the PLoS authors’ perspective, wherever they publish in PLoS their work will reach anyone with an interest in it, and their work will be stamped with a brand that is associated with social change, innovation and quality. There’s much more to value than the direct costs of publishing a single article.

And a final point on value. Publishing in the conventional system is estimated to cost the academy around $4500 per article. What PLoS (and for that matter BioMed Central, Hindawi, Co-Action, Copernicus and other successful open-access publishers) is showing is that high-quality publishing can be supported by publication fees that are substantially less than the costs of the conventional system.

There is a revolution in the making, and despite the wealth of support that we are seeing, it won’t be comfortable for everyone. We need constructive criticism, but also some optimism and creativity to make it work. There are grounds for hope that we’ve moved beyond the antagonism that has characterized many discussions around open access. There really is a lot to celebrate.

The article can be accessed here. 

**** UPDATE FEBRUARY 2012: AN INTERVIEW WITH PUBLIC LIBRARY OF SCIENCE CO-FOUNDER MICHAEL EISEN IS NOW AVAILABLE HERE ****

Monday, March 07, 2011

PLoS ONE, Open Access, and the Future of Scholarly Publishing

Open Access (OA) advocates argue that PLoS ONE is now the largest scholarly journal in the world. Its parent organisation Public Library of Science (PLoS) was co-founded in 2001 by Nobel Laureate Harold Varmus. What does the history of PLoS tell us about the development of PLoS ONE? What does the success of PLoS ONE tell us about OA? And what does the current rush by other publishers to clone PLoS ONE tell us about the future of scholarly communication?

Our story begins in 1998, in a coffee shop located on the corner of Cole and Parnassus in San Francisco. It was here, Harold Varmus reports, that the seeds of PLoS were sown, during a seminal conversation he had with colleague Patrick Brown. Only at that point did Varmus realise what a mess scholarly communication was in. Until then, he says, he had been “an innocent person who went along with the system as it existed”.

Enlightenment began when Brown pointed out to Varmus that when scientists publish their papers they routinely (and without payment) assign ownership in them to the publisher. Publishers then lock the papers behind a paywall and charge other researchers a toll (subscription) to read them, thereby restricting the number of potential readers.

Since scientists crave readers (and the consequent “impact”) above all else, Brown reminded Varmus, the current system is illogical, counterproductive, and unfair to the research community. While it may have been necessary to enter into this Faustian bargain with publishers in a print environment (since it was the only way to get published, and print inevitably restricts readership), Brown added, it is no longer necessary in an online world — where the only barriers to the free-flow of information are artificial ones.

Physicists, Brown said, have overcome this “access” problem by posting preprints of all their papers on a web-based server called arXiv. Created by Paul Ginsparg in 1991, arXiv allows physical scientists to ensure that their work is freely available to all. “Should not the biomedical sciences be doing something similar?” Brown asked Varmus.

It was doubtless no accident that Brown — who had previously worked with the Nobel Laureate — chose Varmus as his audience for a lecture on scholarly publishing: at the time Varmus was director of the National Institutes of Health (NIH) — the largest source of funding for medical research in the world. He was, therefore, ideally placed to spearhead the revolution that Brown believed was necessary.

Fortunately for the open access movement (as it later became known) Varmus immediately grasped the nature of the problem — aided perhaps by some residual Zen wisdom emanating from the walls of the coffee shop they were sitting in, which had once been the Tassajara Bakery. Varmus emerged from the cafĂ© persuaded that it would be a good thing if publicly-funded research could be freed from the publishers’ digital padlocks. And he went straight back to the NIH to consult with colleagues to that end.

Again fortuitously, one of the first people Varmus broached the topic with was David Lipman — director of the NIH-based National Center for Biotechnology Information (NCBI). NCBI was home to the OA sequence database GenBank, and Lipman was an enthusiastic supporter of the notion that research should be freely available on the Web. By now Varmus’ conversion was complete.

This conversion was to see Varmus embark on a journey that would lead to the founding of a new publisher called Public Library of Science, the launch of two prestigious OA journals (PLoS Biology and PLoS Medicine), and subsequently to the creation of what OA advocates maintain is now the largest scholarly journal in the world — PLOS ONE.

As we shall see, Varmus’ journey was to prove no walk in the park, and some believe his project lost its bearings on the way. Rather than providing a solution, they argue, PLoS may have become part of the problem.

Certainly PLoS ONE has proved controversial. This became evident to me last year, when a researcher drew my attention to a row that had erupted over a paper the journal had published on “wind setdown”.

Even some of the journal’s own academic editors appeared to be of the view that the paper should not have been published (in its current form at least). As the row appeared to raise questions about PLoS ONE’s review process — and about PLoS ONE more broadly — I contacted PLoS ONE executive editor Damian Pattinson.

The response I got served only to pique my interest: While Pattinson invited me to send over a list of questions, I subsequently received an email from PLoS ONE publisher Peter Binfield informing me that it had been decided not to answer my questions after all. 

To read on please click here (for a long PDF file). 

The PDF includes a response from PLoS. I will also be publishing the response as a separate post. (Now available here).
 
This article was cited in a 2011 report on peer review in scientific publications by the British House of Commons Science and Technology Committee.


**** UPDATE FEBRUARY 2012: AN INTERVIEW WITH PUBLIC LIBRARY OF SCIENCE CO-FOUNDER MICHAEL EISEN IS NOW AVAILABLE HERE ****