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Since the first scientific journal appeared in French in 1665, the publication of scientific journals has become an industry in its own right. Scientists scramble not just to be the first to publish a discovery, but also to have their work carried by a journal where it will receive the widest attention. It is estimated that more than a million scientific papers are published annually by over 20,000 journals. Annual subscriptions for some of these can go up to $20,000. When the first issue of PLoS Biology, an online open access monthly journal published by the Public Library of Science, became available last month, the interest and the resultant rush to the website was so great that the server crashed. Open access journals make their content freely available over the Internet. PLoS Biology is not the first open access journal; the Directory of Open Access Journals lists over 550. London-based BioMed Central (BMC) was launched four years ago and now has some 150 journals covering a wide range of fields in biology and medicine. But with high-profile backers like Harold Varmus, Nobel Laureate and former director of the National Institutes of Health in the United States, PLoS Biology is making a serious bid to become one of those elite journals that have the pick of the best scientific papers.
Open access publishing has been gathering momentum in recent years. Dr. Varmus and like-minded scientists point out that much scientific research, especially basic research, is government funded. So the public ends up paying twice, first for the research and then for getting access to the results of the research. The costs of subscribing to several scientific journals are daunting enough for institutions in Western countries, not to mention those in India and other developing countries. One of India's leading scientific institutions estimates that it currently spends Rs. 5 crores a year on journal subscriptions. Moreover, conventional journal publication is seen as benefiting publishers rather than the scientists or science. Journals do not pay scientists either for their papers or for reviewing the work of other researchers to judge whether it is suitable for publication (the all important `peer review'). Scientists would like as many people as possible to read their work, a goal that is not served by high subscription fees and online access charges. But for open access publishing to thrive, the public-spirited ventures must succeed economically. Rather than demand access fees, PLoS Biology and the BMC journals collect fees from scientists whose papers they publish, the former requiring $1,500 per paper and the latter $500. These fees can be waived if the scientist cannot afford to pay (as is the case in developing countries). Many well-known journal publishers have cast doubts on whether these charges are adequate. They claim that publishing online reduces production costs only by about 20 per cent; there are considerable administrative and staffing costs, including handling the whole peer-review process. PLoS and BMC say the fees they collect are sufficient to meet their costs.
Open access publishing depends crucially on widespread backing from scientists around the globe, including India. A good journal can be rejecting up to 90 per cent of the manuscripts it receives. So if open access journals are to maintain their quality and make ends meet by charging for accepted papers, scientists must opt to publish their best work there. In addition, even when papers are published in conventional journals, the pre-print (and sometimes the post-print) versions can often be placed in open electronic archives to ensure free access. Physicists have been doing this for years and scientists from other disciplines, especially biology and medicine, need to follow suit.
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