The University of California system’s recent decision to walk away from negotiations with scholarly journal publishing giant Elsevier highlights once again the many problems within the scientific publishing business, a $10 billion-per-year worldwide enterprise that is the bedrock of modern science. Publishers like Elsevier, Springer — which publishes the high-impact journal Nature —and dozens of other for-profit companies and nonprofit scientific societies are an essential part of the give-and-take of science, offering a place to publish and share new results. But they also charge for scientists and the public to read those results, much of which the public originally funded through federal agencies such as the National Institutes of Health (NIH) and the National Science Foundation (NSF). The UC most recently paid Elsevier $11 million for a year’s worth of access to its journals, which include the well-known medical journal The Lancet and more than 2,500 lesser-known titles, from Poetics to Fungal Biology.
Michael Eisen, a professor of molecular and cell biology and a Howard Hughes Medical Institute investigator, has done his part to disrupt the stodgy business, which he thinks not only takes advantage of authors and universities, but distorts the process of science. As a founder 19 years ago of the first open access journal, PLOS (Public Library of Science), he sought to establish a new business model where scientists pay to publish, while anyone can view the results for free. Other journals slowly moved in that direction, but even today, only about 20 percent of all published research is open access, and almost none of the papers appearing in high profile publications like Nature, Science and PNAS(Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences) can be read by the public without charge.
Appointed last month the editor-in-chief of the open access journal eLife — Berkeley Nobel Laureate Randy Schekman is stepping down as founding editor — Eisen has a new platform to shake up the field of science publishing and help make it serve scientists and the public.