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  • Elizabeth Marincola: ''I imagine a future where the only limits on the scientific imagination are those of our minds''

Elizabeth Marincola: ''I imagine a future where the only limits on the scientific imagination are those of our minds''

I’ve been involved in science publishing since 1991, and I can tell you that the tension among a scientist’s desire to put her results in the public domain, the public’s right to know, and the publisher’s need to maintain a sustainable business is not new. Furthermore, this is not a discussion limited to professional scientists and publishers. In the age of citizen science, where unspecialized individuals can collaborate and participate in studies anywhere, this involves everyone

  • Elizabeth Marincola

I believe in free markets and competition. Traditional scientific publishers argue that their enterprise adds value and costs money and therefore charging for it is perfectly reasonable. I do, too. However, I also believe that we lose sight of the purpose of research when it gets converted into a privately-controlled, limited-access commodity.

In today’s world, there is no reason to limit access to knowledge only to those who can pay for it. The quality of education in universities and medical schools, and access to the best and most current science for everyone, should not depend on the ability to pay for expensive journal subscription licenses. And this doesn’t have to be the model of scientific publishing anymore. The organization I represent, PLOS – The Public Library of Science – has proven that an open model of publishing scientific work not only accelerates access to science, but is also viable as a business.

Our mission at PLOS is to transform scientific communication by leveraging advances in digital technologies. This transformation seeks to encourage collaboration and elevate scientific literacy around the world. Science is about collaboration and accumulating knowledge—each researcher learning what came before, to approach a problem differently and/or to build on what is known. When it comes to biomedical science, the ultimate mission is supporting better health, for everyone, everywhere.

PLOS defines Open Access as publishing scientific articles immediately and making them available free to anyone, anywhere, to be downloaded, printed, distributed, read, and reused without restriction, as long as the author and the original source are properly attributed. The key points are “immediately and freely available” and “reused without restriction.”

Let’s start with “immediately and freely available.”  The free flow of information is especially critical in biomedicine where immediate access to research can mean literally the difference between life and death. We see how in this dramatic instance, immediate access to new scientific information can have an impact on actual human lives in real time. However, the vast majority of science publishing does not work this way. In fact, only 12% of scientific, technical and medical publication is on an Open Access platform.

Like across industries, economies of scale have driven the consolidation of players in science publishing. Today, a handful of giant companies dominate the field. In fact, the top three science journal publishing houses control approximately 7,000 journals each. These three huge publishers disseminate about half of all the high-quality research studies that exist. Most of them are inaccessible to the public.

National governments are the dominant funders of basic scientific research throughout the developed world. In the U.S., for example, tens of billions of dollars of public money is spent each year on funding scientific research. Logically then, taxpayers should have the right to access the research that they themselves have funded.

We are in a completely different world from when print publishing of scientific research was the standard as introduced more than 300 years ago. Innovations in technology allow endless online collaboration, and PLOS authors have leveraged these technologies to advance their own work. PLOS has also shown that Open Access publishing eliminates many artificial constraints on the communication of science. There are no arbitrary limits to the number of papers or images or the length of an article or the amount of data because there is no postage or paper or mailing costs. And this without compromising the quality of the published research: articles are still peer reviewed as they always have been.

Another aspect of Open Access is community building and collaboration, which brings me to the second part of the Open Access equation: reuse without restriction. We are moving away from a model where access to articles and content related to those articles is only available from the original publisher.

Furthermore, I predict that scientific publishing will similarly move away from the model of a static review of manuscripts and migrate towards a model of dynamic assessment that reflects the latest findings and the evolution of scientific ideas over time. And PLOS is committed to this transition, because we consider peer review to be like democracy, which Winston Churchill once famously said was the worst possible form of government except for the alternatives. Peer review is badly in need of reinvention. The current peer review system starts when authors submit an article to a publisher like PLOS. This article is then assigned to an academic editor and it undergoes a review process. If everything is in order, it gets published.

I imagine a future where research is published without unnecessary delays, and critical assessment and commentary are provided by a robust system of visible, engaged post- publication peer review. I imagine a future where we expand the definition of what is published. Scientific advances are hindered if the data are not made available. Scientific output should reflect the life cycle of the research and include all underlying information, which should be easily accessible and usable. I imagine a future where the only limits on the scientific imagination are those of our minds.

Moving science in these new directions will not be easy. It will involve changes in culture, alterations to incentive systems, and challenges to longstanding practices to which scientists and publishers have become accustomed. PLOS has already proven its ability to drive fundamental change in scientific communication, with a clear vision, sufficient dedication and the creativity and energy to execute it. PLOS is positioned to address these opportunities to lead scientific publishing in these new and critically important directions.

As noted earlier, science is about accumulating knowledge, with each researcher building on what came before to learn something better or to do something different. The vision of PLOS is a world where access to and distribution of scientific research is not constrained by artificial barriers. I am confident that the fully free flow of information will translate to the faster and better advance of research. And that is good for science, good for education, good for taxpayers, good for doctors, good for patients and good for all of us.

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