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Elizabeth Cooney is a health reporter for the Worcester Telegram & Gazette.
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Friday, November 9, 2007

Open access, open debate

Making scientific articles free and available to all is only fair to the taxpayers who support research and the developing countries who need it, a Nobel laureate at the forefront of the open-access movement said at a forum today, but the editor of a prestigious journal likened that approach to vanity publishing.

Dr. Harold Varmus, head of Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center and former director of the National Institutes of Health, and Emilie Marcus, executive editor of Cell Press, took opposing positions at a conference on scientific publishing organized by graduate students at Harvard Medical School.

"The public pays a lot for the research that's published in this country," said Varmus, the keynote speaker. He shared the 1989 Nobel in medicine for his work with genes that cause cancer. "Why should they have to pay for it twice to see the results?"

During a later panel discussion, Marcus countered that having scientists pay journals to publish their work, which is the way open-access journals offset costs traditionally borne by subscribers, ignores the value that journals and editors bring.

"When journals derive money from readership, the pressure is on the journal to provide value important to the people who read it. I as editor focus on creating a journal you as readers want to read," she said. "The philosophy of publishing with the author paying can turn publishing into a vanity publishing model."

In opening remarks, Dr. Steven Hyman, provost of Harvard University, reminded the mostly young crowd of about 120 that when he was a student, he had to scramble to feed nickels into Xerox machines to copy papers from bound volumes of journals in the stacks of Countway Library.

Now scientists have the opportunity to make their work freely and immediately available online, with the same peer-review process in place, Varmus said. They pay a fee of up to $3,000 for publication in journals of the Public Library of Science.

Varmus also hopes for an encyclopedic and timely repository of all research, whatever journal publishes it originally, so people can search for all sorts of information without having to pay for it -- a concern for poorer nations around the world. PubMed Central was formed in 1999 with that idea in mind when Varmus was near the end of his tenure at NIH, but with only 5 percent of NIH-funded researchers contributing to it, and only several months after publication, the repository falls short of that goal, he said.

Marcus said articles published by Cell's parent company, Elsevier, are deposited on behalf of all NIH-funded authors into PubMed Central 12 months after publication at no charge.

Posted by Elizabeth Cooney at 07:24 PM
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