The founders of the non-profit Public Library of Science (PLoS) are trying to change the face of scientific publishing.

Instead of paying for access to research locked in subscription-only databases controlled by leading scientific journals, they want open access to such literature.

Launched in October, it is the first peer-reviewed journal produced by the San Francisco-based organisation. PLoS Medicine is due to be launched next year and other specialist publications are also planned.

Unlike the major peer-reviewed scientific journals, which publish research submitted by scientists and charge subscriptions or fees to access database information, PLoS Biology has opted for a different approach- an “author pays” policy.

It charges the researchers $1500, or whatever they can afford to pay, for each study it decides to publish and the research is then available in an open-access database.

“We use author charges to cover the cost of the peer-review process and production through the online version," said Vivian Siegel, the executive director of the journal PLoS Biology.

Peer review is a system in which submitted research is reviewed by a panel of experts who judge its scientific value before it is published.

PLoS has also received a $9 million start-up grant and additional donations from foundations and individuals, but the organisation plans to be self-sufficient in five years.

History

Debate over open access scientific publishing began in the 1990s when scientists doing research in the United States realised they could not get to data they needed because it was behind subscription barriers.

“The first step they took was to circulate a letter among the community asking publishers to change their practices. Not change their business models entirely, but to open up access to the literature after six months of publication," said Siegel, a former editor of the journal Cell.

Critics fear 'author pays' model
will erode quality of publications

More than 30,000 people signed the letter that sparked a debate about open access publishing. Some publishers changed their practices but the major players were resistant to any upheaval in the way they do business.

Scientists - eager for the prestige of publishing their research in top-notch journals which is a plus for winning grants and furthering their careers - were left with no alternatives but to work within the current system.
This is changing.

"There is a lesson here that publishers who apply a user-pays model have failed to take seriously - the emergence of author power," said Peter Horton, the editor of the UK's Lancet medical journal, in a commentary in a recent issue.

Critics

Opponents to open access say the current system works, so it does not need to be changed. Scientific publishers also question whether the "author pays" model will erode the quality of the research or lead to conflict of interest, and whether journals could survive financially under a new system. 

Siegel says the enthusiasm to PLoS Biology has been extraordinary, with more than a half million hits on the site in the first two hours after its launch.

She stressed that PLoS is not trying to put big scientific publishers out of business but to compete with them and to get them to open up their databases to the public.