TECHSPLOITATION: Science for Everybody
Annalee Newitz, AlterNet
June 16, 2003
You've just been diagnosed with a disease whose name you can barely
pronounce, let alone understand. All you know, based on what the
doctor has told you, is that things could get very serious if you
don't start treatment. But there are two possible treatments, each
with upsides and downsides. It's up to you to decide which one you
want to try. So where do you turn?
Like a lot of people, you go online. If you know how to get good,
peer-reviewed medical information on the Web, you go to the National
Library of Medicine's database of scientific articles called, not very
glamorously, PubMed. It's a pretty nifty site: You can search
specifically for the names of the treatments your doctor has
recommended and several dozen articles pop up on your screen. When you
want to read the articles, however, you are stymied. All you get is a
short abstract of the article -- not enough to tell you what you need
to know -- and you have to cough up to $40 or $50 for the full text.
Why can't you get free access to information that was paid for using
your tax dollars?
That's what the activists at the Public Library of Science in San
Francisco want to know, too. Led in part by Nobel laureate Harold
Varmus and charismatic gene-chip whiz kid Michael Eisen, PloS's
mission is to make scientific knowledge a public good.
The group traces its immediate history to Varmus's project PubMed
Central, a service associated with the aforementioned PubMed, which
was supposed to make the full text of articles available to anyone who
wanted them. Unfortunately, the scientific publishing business --
exemplified by corporate giants like Elsevier, which puts out
thousands of periodicals and books -- didn't exactly embrace the idea
of making its copyrighted materials available for free.
To highlight the growing antagonisms between scientists and many of
the journals that publish them, a coalition of researchers circulated
a petition among their colleagues in 2000 calling for journals to make
their contents publicly accessible. More than 30,000 scientists from
all over the world signed it.
And so PloS was born. If scientific publications weren't willing to
open up their contents to the world, members of PloS reasoned, then
the scientists would have to start publishing their work in a new way.
With a five-year, $9 million grant from the Gordon and Betty Moore
Foundation under its belt, PloS is getting ready to launch two online
scientific journals, PloS Biology and PloS Medicine. Articles in both
publications will be written by leaders in the field and subjected to
a rigorous peer-review process. Then they will be released under a
public access license developed by Creative Commons, a group at
Stanford University that develops legal alternatives to the
restrictive copyright system PloS aims to challenge.
Vivian Siegel left a high-profile job as editor of Cell -- one of the
triumvirate of top scientific journals, along with Science and Nature
-- to work as executive director of PloS. Why make the move from one
of the most influential scientific journals in the world to an upstart
whose future is uncertain? "I'm an idealist," she says
simply. Plus, if it comes to a showdown between science and
publishing, the biologist turned editor is firmly on the side of
science. "All the editors at Cell wanted to make our articles
open-access, but [parent company] Elsevier didn't want to do it. When
I pointed out that our position made me feel like I wasn't working for
the benefit of the scientific community, my boss said, 'What? You
think you're a scientist?' I realized I couldn't act on my principles
and continue at Cell."
Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory researcher and PloS cofounder
Eisen says his passion for the PloS projects grew out of a frustrating
experience he had in his work on DNA microarrays, tools that help
biologists analyze genomic activity. A recent breakthrough in the
technology allowed Eisen and his colleagues to look at an entire
genome, which meant they were inundated with information about
thousands of genes. Eisen thought the best way to deal with the
situation would be to link the output from the array to software that
would search databases of scientific literature for information about
the relevant genes. When a researcher wanted to study a section of the
genome, he or she could get information from the array and from the
literature at the same time. But, according to Eisen, "the
publishers said, 'No, it's our information.' That's when I recognized
that the publishing system doesn't serve the scientific community. We
couldn't build on other people's knowledge. It's a perversion of the
principles of science."
For a researcher like Eisen, PloS could become the ideal research
tool. Data about genomics is scattered across hundreds of
publications; with open-access publication, all of that data would be
at his fingertips. "My research is dependent on [PloS]
succeeding," he says, and he's not alone. Most microbiology these
days involves data aggregation. Without it, treatment for cancers --
diseases caused by mutations in the genome -- could be much further
away than most of us hope.
"Sharing information is a key founding component of science,"
Eisen argues. "Today technology has made it easy to imagine a
world where the free full text of every scientific paper is available
to everybody in the universe." Of course, technology alone isn't
enough. It's only as good as the people using it. And that's why PloS
is a hopeful sign of things to come.
([log in to unmask]) is a surly media nerd who laughs in the
face of your pathetic copyright laws. Her column also appears in
Metro, Silicon Valley's weekly newspaper.