home page

ASCB Newsletter - February 2003


The Crisis in Scientific Communication: A View from the Trenches

To support the ASCB’s efforts to advance science through innovative and progressive publishing practices, Society officer Gary Ward was asked to write the following perspective on free access publishing. This month’s President’s Column by Suzanne Pfeffer also addresses electronic publishing.

Improving access to the scientific literature is something that all scientists should care about deeply. I began thinking seriously about this issue at the opening symposium of the 2000 ASCB Annual Meeting in San Francisco, when Harold Varmus described a petition being circulated by the Public Library of Science. The petition made the case for more open and equitable access to the scientific literature, and challenged publishers to make their content freely available1. Signatories pledged that they would only submit, review, edit, and subscribe to journals that provided free access to their content.

The PLoS initiative captured the imagination of scientists around the world, eventually garnering over 35,000 signatures. Although the initial pledge was eventually softened, the accompanying public debate was lively and occasionally acrimonious. Publishers, scientists, and librarians all weighed in. While one can question the confrontational approach of the PLoS initiative—as many have—there is no question that it has raised awareness of the free access issue. It has also driven a deep wedge into the idea that free access is an impossible dream of a bunch of “naïve idealists2.” Many publishers have begun to offer free access to their content after embargo periods of two months to two years (see the list of over 800 titles at http://freemedicaljournals.com). Notably absent are journals published by most of the major commercial publishers, including Elsevier, Kluwer, Wiley, Springer, MacMillan (Nature), and Cell Press.

The Access Problem
Why does the issue of free access strike such a chord with scientists? The simple answer is that most of us have experienced the frustration of knowing that a specific article that we need for our research or teaching exists, but is beyond our reach. The extent of the problem varies from institution to institution. For example, at the NIH campus in

Bethesda, scientists can download essentially any article from any online journal at any time: in the library, in their office, or at home. Unfortunately, the vast majority of working scientists are not so fortunate, and constantly struggle with issues of access.

I serve on the faculty at the University of Vermont (UVM), in many respects a typical mediumsized American public university. UVM’s current budget of just under $1.5 million for biological/biomedical journals is nowhere near sufficient to meet the needs of our diverse faculty and staff. Annual increases in the acquisitions budget have been unable to keep pace with the relentless increase (10-15% annually3) in journal prices of the last 20 years (see figure). As a result, we must frequently “make do” without articles from the primary literature required for our research. Teaching is also impacted: I often find myself teaching what I have access to, rather than what would most benefit my students.

The most common response of libraries to the increase in journal prices has been to cancel titles. If current trends continue, by 2015 the average research library will have to cancel between 17% and 45% of its subscriptions just to keep up with price inflation4.

The situation is most extreme in the developing world, where many scientists are essentially excluded from the information loop. This is particularly troubling in my own research area, parasitology, since the regions in which these scientists live and work are often the very ones where parasites have the most direct and devastating impact. Whether in Dakar or in Burlington, the lack of barrier-free access to the scientific literature amplifies inequities between scientists and is a major impediment to scientific progress.

Scientists, Publishers and Copyright
In keeping with my PLoS pledge, in the Fall of 2001 I declined to write an invited review for an Elsevier journal and refused to review a manuscript for another. These actions led to an interesting dialogue with senior editorial staff of Elsevier. I was informed that Elsevier has no intention of making its content freely available, after any length embargo period, because it could not remain profitable if it did. However, no publisher of which I am aware has provided credible evidence demonstrating that access to its content after a reasonable delay would be financially damaging. I was also challenged by the editors to show them a successful business model in which the product is given away for free. While market forces underlying the scientific publishing industry are unusual and poorly understood5, the hundreds of journals that offer delayed release of content for free have somehow managed to make it work. Their experience suggests that publishing a product of sufficient quality will compel people to subscribe to ensure the earliest possible access, even if that same content is made available later for free. Furthermore, consider the current commercial model that enables publishers to:

  1. enjoy the unpaid contributions of its expert consultants (reviewers, editors) for the exclusive financial benefit of the company;
  2. receive a steady supply of raw material (articles), from which the value of its product is almost entirely derived, at no cost (in fact in many cases is paid to accept it!); and
  3. demand that the creator of the raw material assign to the company all copyright claims, in perpetuity. Surely this is the business model that we should be questioning.

When science was communicated primarily through print media, scientists needed publishers to edit, redact, market, and distribute their work. Authors accepted the restrictive copyright and access terms dictated by publishers as a quid pro quo 2, and because they had no alternative. The advent of internet publishing has dramatically changed this equation, and the scientific publishing industry has been struggling to adapt ever since.

The vast majority of academic biological research in this country is publicly funded. It is remarkable that we allow commercial interests to hold the copyright on data generated by taxpayer dollars and to restrict access to the results of taxpayerfunded research to those that can afford to pay. This arrangement is clearly not in the public’s best interest, as a study by the American Academy of Arts and Sciences recently concluded6. The average price of a commercial scientific journal is two to four times that of a society-published journal7 and the large commercial publishers have enjoyed extraordinarily high profit margins in recent years8. Using public monies for commercial profit may strike the shareholders of publishing companies as a good use of public funds, but I think most taxpayers and scientists would disagree.

This is not to say that commercial publishers are evil, or that they add no value to the scientific literature, or that they should not work to generate profits for their shareholders. But scientists need to acknowledge that a fundamental conflict of interest exists when copyright ownership of the scientific literature is held by parties whose primary interest is profit, rather than dissemination of scientific knowledge.

Where Do We Go from Here?
Open access publishers such as BioMed Central and PLoS and many scientific societies are attempting to develop new business models that circumvent this conflict of interest (see page 6). This will provide more opportunities for scientists to publish in quality journals that are good choices both for their own CVs and for the cause of free access.

In what other ways can we work to make sure that the ongoing transformation of the publishing industry results in greater access for all? Specific opportunities for effecting change exist at each step in the publishing process:

Authors. Authors should take access policies into account when deciding where to submit. Currently, this can be problematic as there are few journals that meet the highest standards of being both free and available for immediate access and, unfortunately, these journals are not yet sufficiently established to truly compete in terms of reputation with the best of the established titles. One hopes that this will change (see below); in the meantime, the many high-quality journals that offer free access to their content after a reasonable delay are far more deserving of our support than those that offer no free access at all. Considering access policies when deciding where to submit benefits not only the cause of free access but also the author her/himself: papers that are freely available on-line are read and cited more frequently than those that are not9.

Editors. Service on an editorial board is a straightforward decision to anyone who cares about free access. Senior scientists on the editorial boards of the most prestigious journals generally do not need these positions for the sake of their CV’s. If they disagree with the access or pricing policies of the journals on which they serve, they can resign. The rest of us should applaud any scientist who takes such a stand. Mass resignations would be an even more powerful statement. Nothing would raise awareness of the access issue or build the credibility of open access journals like the resignation of an entire scientific editorial board of a journal such as Cell and the migration of these influential scientists, en bloc, to the editorial board of a journal with more progressive access policies. Several courageous editorial boards have recently confronted their publishers over price and/or access issues, and these experiences have shown just how powerful a force for positive change editors can be10.

Funding Agencies. The Howard Hughes Medical Institute has endorsed open access by subsidizing its investigators’ publication costs in open access journals up to $3,000 per year. Although this is an appreciated gesture, few of us are fortunate enough to be funded by the HHMI. But HHMI’s position can become an example for federal funding agencies, starting with the NIH and the NSF. These agencies could be urged to require that publicly-funded research be published in journals to which the public has free access within a reasonable period after publication. While this may sound naïve, the current arrangement by which taxpayers fund research, individual scientists generate the results, and commercial interests are given control and allowed to sell the results back to those very same governments and scientists makes far less sense. If the US government—through the NSF and NIH—were to take such a bold position, the degree of access enjoyed by scientists would change virtually overnight.

Professional Societies. Professional societies offer another effective channel for us to exert our collective influence. ASCB members can be proud of the many ways in which their society has been a leader on the free access issue. This may seem like an obvious position for non-profit representatives of individual scientists, but if you ask your colleagues in other disciplines if their societies have responded similarly, you may be surprised at what you learn.

Even those who currently enjoy excellent access to the literature understand the importance of increasing access for all. The more widely scientific results are disseminated, the more readily they can be expanded upon or influence other people’s thinking, and therefore the more valuable they become for everybody. I hope that individual members of the ASCB and Society leadership will continue to advocate for the changes in scientific publishing that will benefit us all.


  1. Reference 1
  2. Reference 2
  3. Reference 3
  4. Reference 4l
  5. Nature [2002] 419 , 239;
  6. Science [1998] 281, 1459
  7. Nature [2002] 419, 239; Serials Librarian [2001] 40,157
  8. Reference 8
  9. Reference 9
  10. Nature [2001] 413, 662; (p. 1, 14)


What’s What in Electronic Publishing

The electronic publishing movement has unfolded so quickly that even the most interested scientist often has trouble distinguishing between a publisher and a portal, controlled and uncontrolled access, a government service, a commercial service or a private, nonprofit service... much less the finer distinctions among, for example, different publishers. The following primer is intended to be a useful guide for the busy scientist:

BioMed Central
A commercial publisher that makes the original research content from its journals freely available online for access, re-distribution and re-use, directly and through PubMedCentral, with no delay following publication. Publishes about 100 journals in biology and medicine, including the Journal of Biology and Genome Biology. BMC also encourages scientists to launch new specialty journals. Key players: Vitek Tracz, Jan Velterop, Peter Newmark, Theo Bloom, Matthew Cockerill.

HighWire Press
A service of the Stanford University Libraries, HighWire was an early journal collaborative and portal. It is paid a fee by scientific journal publishers to post and host journal content online, and to provide free full-text links among the 350 HighWirehosted journals. Each publisher determines the rules (e.g. delay time to free access) for its own titles. Key players: Michael Keller, John Sack

Public Library of SciencePublic Library of Science
PLoS started with a petition asking scientists to make a voluntary pledge not to review, subscribe or submit articles to journals that do not make their content freely available within six months of publication. It recently received a foundation grant to become a non-profit scientific publisher, to concentrate in biology and medicine. The costs of publication in PLoS journals will be covered by charges to authors or their sponsors. Contents will be freely available, without restrictions on use or redistribution,immediately upon publication. Key players: Pat Brown, Mike Eisen, Vivian Siegel, Harold Varmus.

An information resource of the the National Library of Medicine of the National Institutes of Health, PubMed provides free access to MEDLINE, the Library’s database of nearly 12 million citations and abstracts in biomedicine and the life sciences. PubMed also provides access to additional citations that are not indexed, links to the full-text of articles deposited in PubMed Central or at publisher websites, and links to molecular biology databases maintained by the National Center for Biotechnology Information. Key player: Donald Lindberg

PubMed Central*+
An innovation of the National Center for Biotechnology Information of the National Library of Medicine, PubMedCentral archives content from scientific journals and makes it available at no cost to the public or the publisher. Publishers voluntarily deposit their content to PMC for posting, and specify a delay interval before each title is made available for free public access. PMC journals are accessible by name and through an integrated, fully searchable database with cross-journal links. PMC has also launched a comprehensive archive, scanning content into a searchable database for dozens of biomedical science titles, going back as far as the 1850’s. Key player: David Lipman.

Molecular Biology of the Cell accessible through these sites. Subscribers and ASCB members receive immediate access; nonmember, nonsubscribers may access content two months after publication.

+ Cell Biology Education available through these sites immediately upon publication and without restriction.



Joint Editors’ Statement on Security & Scientific Publishing

The following statement was issued by journal editors convened by the National Academy of Sciences and the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington last month. Signatories include Molecular Biology of the Cell Editor-in-Chief Keith Yamamoto.

The process of scientific publication, through which new findings are reviewed for quality and then presented to the rest of the scientific community and the public, is a vital element in our national life. New discoveries reported in research papers have helped improve the human condition in myriad ways: protecting public health, multiplying agricultural yields, fostering technological development and economic growth, and enhancing global stability and security.

But new science, as we know, may sometimes have costs as well as benefits. The prospect that weapons of mass destruction might find their way into the hands of terrorists did not suddenly appear on September 11, 2001. A policy focus on nuclear proliferation, no stranger to the physics community, has been with us for many years. But the events of September 11 brought a new understanding of the urgency of dealing with terrorism. And the subsequent harmful use of infectious agents brought a new set of issues to the life sciences. As a result, questions have been asked by the scientists themselves and by some political leaders about the possibility that new information published in research journals might give aid to those with malevolent ends.

Journals that dealt especially with microbiology, infectious agents, public health and plant and agricultural systems faced these issues earlier than some others, and have attempted to deal with them. The American Society for Microbiology, in particular, urged the National Academy of Sciences to take an active role in organizing a meeting of publishers, scientists, security experts and government officials to explore the issues and discuss what steps might be taken to resolve them. In a oneday workshop at the Academy in Washington co-hosted by the Center for Strategic and International Studies on January 9, 2003, an open forum was held for that purpose. A day later, a group of journal editors, augmented by scientist-authors, government officials and others, held a separate meeting designed to explore possible approaches.

What follows reflects some outcomes of that preliminary discussion. Fundamental is a view, shared by nearly all, that there is information that, although we cannot now capture it with lists or definitions, presents enough risk of use by terrorists that it should not be published. How and by what processes it might be identified will continue to challenge us, because—as all present acknowledged—it is also true that open publication brings benefits not only to public health but also in efforts to combat terrorism.

First: The scientific information published in peer-reviewed research journals carries special status, and confers unique responsibilities on editors and authors. We must protect the integrity of the scientific process by publishing manuscripts of high quality, in sufficient detail to permit reproducibility. Without independent verification—a requirement for scientific progress—we can neither advance biomedical research nor provide the knowledge base for building strong biodefense systems.

Second: We recognize that the prospect of bioterrorism has raised legitimate concerns about the potential abuse of published information, but also recognize that research in the very same fields will be critical to society in meeting the challenges of defense. We are committed to dealing responsibly and effectively with safety and security issues that may be raised by papers submitted for publication, and to increasing our capacity to identify such issues as they arise.

Third: Scientists and their journals should consider the appropriate level and design of processes to accomplish effective review of papers that raise such security issues. Journals in disciplines that have attracted numbers of such papers have already devised procedures that might be employed as models in considering process design. Some of us represent some of those journals; others among us are committed to the timely implementation of such processes, about which we will notify our readers and authors.

Fourth: We recognize that on occasions an editor may conclude that the potential harm of publication outweighs the potential societal benefits. Under such circumstances, the paper should be modified, or not be published. Scientific information is also communicated by other means: seminars, meetings, electronic posting, etc. Journals and scientific societies can play an important role in encouraging investigators to communicate results of research in ways that maximize public benefits and minimize risks of misuse.

Among the signatories were the following journal editors: Ronald Atlas, CRC Critical Reviews in Microbiology Philip Campbell, Nature Nick Cozzarelli, PNAS Greg Curfman, New England Journal of Medicine Lynn Enquist, Journal of Virology Annette Flanagin, JAMA Gordon Hammes, Biochemistry Thomas Inglesby, Biosecurity and Bioterrorism Donald Kennedy, Science Emil Marcus, Neuron Alison O'Brien, Infection and Immunity Andrew Onderdonk, Journal of Clinical Microbiology George Poste, Health Technology Networks Beatrice Renault, Nature Medicine Robert Rich, Journal of Immunology Thomas Shenk, Journal of Virology Herbert Tabor, Journal of Biological Chemistry Harold Varmus, Public Library of Science Publications Keith Yamamoto, Molecular Biology of the Cell


Molecular Biology of the Cell Editors Revise Journal Philosophy

At a meeting of Associate Editors of Molecular Biology of the Cell in December, the journal’s Statement of Philosophy was revised to acknowlege advances in publishing.

The reporting of science is an integral part of research itself. Hence, scientific journals should be instruments in which scientists are at the controls, and journals themselves should be “transparent” to the scientific process, transmitting information accurately, without trying to define what’s hot and what’s not. MBC advocates the interests of both contributors and readers through fair, prompt, and thorough review, coupled with responsible editorial adjudication and thoughtful suggestions for revision and clarification. Our most essential review criterion is impact— does the work advance significantly our knowledge, or provide new concepts or approaches that extend our understanding? At MBC, every editorial decision is rendered solely by active working scientists—true peers of the contributors.

MBC seeks to facilitate communication among scientists by publishing original papers that include full documentation of Methods and Results, Introductions and Discussions that frame questions and interpret findings clearly (even for those outside an immediate circle of experts), and by exploiting technical advances to enable rapid dissemination of articles prior to print publication, and transmission and archiving of videos, large datasets and other materials that enhance understanding.

MBC is free from commercial oversight and influence and is published by the nonprofit American Society for Cell Biology. The Society and MBC are committed to promoting the concept of free access to the scientific literature.


Short Course on Time-Resolved Fluorescence Spectroscopy

The Center for Fluorescence Spectroscopy, at the University of Maryland School of Medicine, is offering a Short Course on Principles and Applications of Time-Resolved Fluorescence Spectroscopy in Baltimore, March 24-28, 2003. The course will cover basic and advanced topics in fluorometry, including timeand frequency-domain measurements, and Forster resonance energy transfer. Advanced topics include chemical sensing, imaging, fiber optics, infrared fluorometry, twoand multi-photon excitation, instrumentation, confocal and multi-photon microscopy, protein fluorescence, DNA technology, high throughput screening, metal-ligand probes, correlation spectroscopy, lanthanides and immunoassays. Textbook, course materials, lunches, and refreshments will be provided.

For further information, a schedule, and fees, please contact Ms. Mary Rosenfeld, or Prof. J.R. Lakowicz at the CFS, Dept of Biochem and Molec Biol, 725 W. Lombard St., Baltimore, MD, 21201; (410) 706-8409 or Fax (410) 706-8408 or visit our web site.


Members In The News

Ralph Brinster of the University of Pennsylvania School of Veterinary Medicine, an ASCB member since 1965, will receive the 2002/2003 Wolf Prize in Medicine. The Prize will be awarded by Israeli President Moshe Katsav in Jerusalem.

Martin Gorovsky of the University of Rochester, an ASCB member since 1965, has been chosen by the journal Science for producing “the most important scientific breakthrough” of 2002. Gorovsky is one of four scientists named by Science for their work in understanding how pieces of RNA can control genetic development.


Grants & Opportunities

2003 Cooperative Grants Program. The U.S. Civilian Research and Development Foundation (CRDF), invites teams of U.S. and former Soviet Union (FSU) scientists and engineers to apply for oneto twoyear grants. One application may be submitted every twelve months.

NIGMS Administrative Supplements. Human Embryonic stem cell research funding opportunities. Deadline is May 5.


ASCB Job Service Free to Members

The American Society for Cell Biology Job Board invites ASCB members to post their CV free of charge. Individuals who post their CV may control access to identifying information. CVs are accessible and searchable without charge. Employers pay a nominal fee to list positions. Employers and job seekers contact each other directly; interviews may be scheduled by mutual convenience at any time throughout the year or at the ASCB Annual Meeting Career Center. For more information or to post your CV.


MAC Summer Opportunities

For Undergraduates
Friday Harbor Laboratories (University of Washington) March 1 application deadline for summer interns (“Blinks Program interns”). This program particularly targets students of diversity.

For Faculty at Minority Serving Institutions:

Visiting Professorship Program The MAC Visiting Professorship awards provide support to professors at Minority-Serving Institutions to work in the laboratories of members of the ASCB for an eightto ten-week period during the summer of 2003.

The awards are funded through the MAC Minority Access to Research Careers (MARC) program of the National Institutes of Health/ National Institute of General Medical Sciences to support research at primarily teaching institutions that serve minority students and scientists. Applicants must be U.S. citizens or permanent residents of the U.S. The host scientist must be a member of the ASCB or have submitted a membership application (www.ascb.org). Visiting Professor and Host Scientist submit their application as a team. Application forms may be downloaded from the ASCB MAC Homepage.

Women and minority professors and professors in colleges and universities with a high minority enrollment are especially encouraged to apply.

facebook twitter1 youtube linkedin