For Free Access, Follow the Brick Red Buttons

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Science  06 Apr 2001:
Vol. 292, Issue 5514, pp. 51-52
DOI: 10.1126/science.292.5514.51c

To add to the dialogue about an online Public Library of Science, I wish to share as Editor-in-Chief of The Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS), our experiences with PubMed Central in order to allay some of the concerns expressed by the editors at Science. I also offer a compromise position that would expedite formation of a public library while requiring little from publishers.

The National Academy of Sciences is passionately committed to broad access to the scientific literature. PNAS became a charter member of PMC over a year ago, and its content is posted at PMC only 4 weeks after the release of the print edition. This free availability has not caused us any perceptible economic harm. If anything, it has been beneficial. It may seem paradoxical that giving our content away has helped PNAS, but it is an experience shared with other enterprises from pop music and book publishing to radio. The number of people accessing the PNAS online sites at PMC and HighWire Press has continued to grow exponentially during the time we have been associated with PMC. No doubt the brick red button next to PubMed citations to our journal that says “Free in PMC” has provided an incentive for readers to explore PNAS. The increase in accesses to a free journal naturally leads to increased readership, authorship, and even subscriptions. Journals are in that rare position where they can do the right thing and profit at the same time. PNAS has thrived from giving our content away after 4 weeks, so it is hard to see why other journals fear giving away their content after 6 months or a year.

Furthermore, the warning by the Science editors about the danger of intrusion by big government into scientific publishing is specious. PMC seeks to be just one of many independent hosts of the scientific archive. PMC is a library, not a publisher. If the National Library of Medicine, with its history of support for biomedical research, were to tell PNAS what we could and could not publish, we would withdraw our content. But the argument is symmetric. If HighWire Press were to institute policies that the National Academy found unacceptable, PNAS would also go elsewhere. The risk in either case is small, but surely having content on two or more sites makes one less vulnerable, not more.

Many publishers are still wary of having their content accessed from a central repository. Thus, at the 21 March meeting of the PMC Advisory Board, an additional means of participation was established that provides an easy transition to full involvement. Journals would, after a delay of preferably up to 6 months but no more than a year, send an electronic form of their content to PMC. An archive would be created allowing full-text searching by all, but not access to the articles. The publisher's site would instead remain as the sole source of their articles as long as they remained freely available. Only if public access were withdrawn would the content be released through PMC. Publishers could thereby determine, in an easily reversible fashion, the consequences of giving their content away and of participating in PMC. This scheme does require a clumsy linking back and forth between sites, unlike full participation in PMC, and it would limit the creative evolution of the process. Nonetheless, I suggest that this intermediate level of involvement in PMC be seen as a good faith effort that removes the threat of the boycott, which would then be focused on the scofflaws who refuse public release. The major beneficiary of this compromise proposal is the scientific public, who would have free access to the literature while the principals work out details in the background. The hope is that the often-confrontational tone of the debate thus far would be replaced by a commitment to a reduction in the delay before free release and the full realization of a Public Library of Science.

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