New Kid on the Block


(This column was first published in the November 3, 2003 issue of The Buffalo News.)


With a photograph of a herd of elephants on its cover a brand new publication has just reached the newsstands.


Well, not exactly. Whether you can find it on a newsstand or even in a library is questionable. A few copies are being printed and distributed but this journal's main venue will be the Internet.


The name of the journal is PLoS Biology, that PLoS standing for Public Library of Science. Founded just three years ago, PLoS, its leaders tell us, "began as a grassroots organization of scientists, advocating the establishment and growth of online public libraries of provide free and unrestricted access to the scientific literature." This biology journal is only their first venture and you can read or download the monthly issues from the journal website.


It may not occur to the general reader that this is such a new activity. All kinds of information and even regularly issued publications appear on the web. That is far from the reality of the situation, however. This is an earthshaking event in the world of science and tremors are resounding throughout the publishing industry. I will try to explain why.


As a member of the University at Buffalo community I have access not only to its libraries with their extensive collection of books and journals but also to the many otherwise very expensive web-based services to which the university subscribes. Students and faculty can obtain through this support system copies of articles from newspapers, journals and books around the world. Few of us could afford to subscribe to the journals of any single field to say nothing of virtually all of them. The expense of maintaining these services that are so important to research and teaching constitutes a major and ever-increasing part of the university's library budget.


At the other end of this documentation are the journals themselves and most of them are hurting. With printing and mailing costs ever increasing, their subscription charges are mounting out of sight. Annual subscriptions to many technical journals have now risen to hundreds of dollars and the number of individuals still able to subscribe is falling apace. (An annual subscription to printed copies of PLoS Biology, for example, is $160.)*


Now these long-time publishers find a new kid on the block, a youngster carrying a free magazine. He threatens all other journals, even those with firmly established reputations like Science and Nature.


How does this new journal get away with publishing free in these economic hard times? It does so simply by turning around its income structure. Under its system authors pay the cost of publication. This sounds much like a vanity press but it is far from it. (So-called vanity publishing involves paying all costs to get your words in print.) Instead the costs here are assigned to the grants or institutions supporting the reported research with additional foundations tossing in funding as well. And here high quality scientific boards review submitted content in exactly the same way this is done by other serious journals.


What is the result? This beautifully produced first issue contains articles not only about those rare Borneo elephants but others on such diverse topics as biological clocks, type 2 diabetes, malaria, neuroscience networks, genetically-modified corn, immune systems, cellular communication and even supersensitive worms.


Please understand: I do not recommend this journal for leisure reading. Much of it is highly technical with corresponding vocabulary. Only a few synopses and features are accessible by us general readers. Nevertheless, this journal represents an important scientific venture, well worth your attention.


You should check it out.-- Gerry Rising

* After this column appeared, Andy Gass, PLoS Outreach Coordinator, passed on to me some additional information about journal costs. He called my attention to a web-based article by Scott J. Turner about journal costs.

Gass pointed out that journal prices often rose well beyond my hundreds of dollars well into the thousands and he went on to summarize part of that article: When it comes to the cost of an annual subscription for scientific or medical journals, there are "lots of titles in the $5,000 area and 20 that stand out above that level," said Sam Mizer, manager of a Sciences Serials Department. These subscriptions include a balance of journal packages as well as single titles. The top 10 priciest Turner found were Tetrahedron full package: $23,061; Nuclear Physics A-B: $19,396; Brain Research: $16,344; Physica A-E: $16,177; Journal of Comparative Neurology: $15,294 [the most expensive single title]; Nuclear Instruments and Methods in Physics Research. A-B: $14,697; Surface Science package: $14,219; Physics Letters A-B: $13,843; Biochimica et Biophysica Acta: $11,362; Journal of Chromatography A-B: $11,109. All I can say is: Wow! No wonder our libraries are hurting.