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Boycott advocates blink in standoff with science publishers


September 28, 2001: Earlier this year, the Public Library of Science (PLS), a self-appointed lobby group, urged scientists to boycott journals that decline to make their content freely available on the Web within six months of first publication. In support of this and related demands, the PLS gathered over 27 thousand signatures to an open letter. But now the boycott, which was to have started in September, is off. Instead, the PLS says in an open letter dated August 31, 2001, it will launch its own journal publishing venture to supplant the publishers who refuse to accede to its demands. In the meantime, the letter tacitly admits, scientists have no option but to continue publishing in the same journals that they have always published in.

If the PLS makes good on its aim of taking over the science publishing business, it will have its work cut out. Currently, there are several million science, technology and medical research articles published annually, a task that occupies the staff of thousands of peer-reviewed journals. On the financial side, however, the PLS will not be challenged by the condition it sought to impose on the society and commercial publishers it intends to replace: it will not attempt to achieve cost recovery through the sale of access during a period of six months following initial publication. Instead, the PLS plans to impose a charge on authors.

The principle of author-pay in science publishing has merit. Author-financed journals provide a wider potential audience than subscription financed publications, and avoid the costs of marketing, subscription renewal and online access control. But the concept is not new. Many Web journals are financed solely through author-paid charges (e.g., 1, 2). Moreover, some old-established journals offer author-paid "free" online distribution (3). Whether this approach to science publishing becomes generally accepted remains to be seen. If it does, the PLS will not be alone in seeking to meet the demand. Thus, despite the PLS's hegemonic ambition, the scientific press will likely remain diverse, innovative and free, if not free-of-charge.

References

(1) New Journal of Physics. http://njp.org/

(2) Conservation Ecology. http://consecol.org/Journal/

(3) Walker, T.J. 2001. Authors willing to pay for instant web access. Nature, online debate. http://www.nature.com/nature/debates/e-access/

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