Link: Michael Eisen comments on open access and PLOS financials

2 minute read

Michael Eisen writes about the economics of running PLOS in two blog posts, both worth reading for those who care about the future of scientific publishing. The posts follow after some Twitter conversations about the finances of PLOS.

In the first (“On pastrami and the business of PLOS”), Eisen discusses the history of the organization and distinguishes his attitudes about open access and widespread preprints from the organization’s reason for existence, which is predicated on biologists’ unwillingness to throw publication completely to post-publication review.

To me the interesting part was this hint about future plans:

That said, it’s certainly possible to run journals much, much more cheaply. It costs the physics pre-print arXiv something like $10 a paper to maintain its software, screening and website. There are times when I wish PLOS had just hacked together a bunch of Perl scripts and hung out a shingle and built in new features as we needed them. But part of what made PLOS appealing at the start is that it didn’t work that way – for better or worse it looked like a real journal, and this was one of the things that made people comfortable with our (at the time) weird economic model. I’m not sure this is true anymore, and if I were starting PLOS today I would do things differently, and think I could do things much less expensively. I would love it if people would set up inexpensive or even free open access biology journals – it’s certainly possible with open source software and fully volunteer labor – and for people to get comfortable with biomedical publishing basically being no different than just posting work on the Internet, with lightweight systems for peer review. That has always seemed to me to be the right way to do things. But PLOS can’t just pull the plug on all the things we do, so we’re trying to achieve the same goal by investing in developing software that will make it possible to do all of the things PLOS does faster, better and cheaper. We’re going to start rolling it out this year, and, while I don’t run PLOS and can’t speak for the whole board, I am confident that this will bring our costs down significantly and that we will ultimately be in a position to reduce prices.

In a second post (“PLOS, open access and scientific societies”), Eisen addresses the argument that it is best to support journals published by scientific societies because of the other good things that societies do, including sponsorship of meetings and travel grants for students:

And no matter how many meetings and fellowships the revenue from paywalled journals support, they are not worth it – I’ve yet to see a society whose good works were so good that they outweighed the harm of paywalling the scientific literature – using meetings as an excuse to paywall the scientific literature is completely unacceptable.

I strongly agree with this point. I’ve had conversations with a few senior scientists who lamented that few people are submitting their best work to our society journals. They seem not to realize that the public accessibility of work is more and more important to today’s scholars. Indeed, it has been rather a depressing realization just how little impact on the public these scholars have had during their entire careers, and how little they have cared about making a difference outside their narrow specialty.