Last month, a two-year-old scientific journal with a controversial new business model was named the top biology journal of 2004.
The recognition was the first quantitative measure of the success of Public Library of Science (PLoS) Biology -- and suggests that such free, readily accessible scientific journals are gaining on the traditional publications that have been the hallmark of scientific publishing for centuries.
Because researchers are wary of sending their work to a journal without an established reputation, PLoS Biology's top ranking came as a surprise to many, and suggested that PLoS has filled a need among academics.
''This can really improve scholarly communication," said Sidney Verba, professor of government and director of the Harvard University library. ''The scientific community can recapture the ability to communicate their results."
The basic premise behind PLoS Biology, and a rapidly expanding family of similar publications in biology and medicine, is that the United States government spends billions of taxpayer dollars to support scientific research, yet results from these efforts are often buried in journal archives that are expensive and difficult to access. PLoS is a nonprofit organization comprised of research scientists who seek to give everyone -- from citizens who want to learn more about new medical treatments to scientists in developing countries who want to reference basic science articles -- full access to these materials.
PLoS Biology was ranked number one among biology journals on the basis of its impact factor, which is the equivalent of a batting average in the world of scientific publishing. These numerical rankings pit different research journals against each other by calculating the number of times published articles are referenced during subsequent years. Impact factors are compiled by Thomson ISI, an independent organization that provides the information for libraries and academic researchers.
The main difference between the PLoS business model and other journals is that funding comes from authors, who spend $1,500 to publish their articles. Most highly reputed scientific publications allow authors to publish for free and charge readers for subscriptions to their journals; Library subscriptions for some of the major scientific journals can cost more than $10,000 each year. With thousands of different scientific journals available, it is often difficult for readers to access the articles that they need.
One criticism leveled against the PLoS business model is that having authors pay for publication places scientific articles in the same category as advertising. The fear is that if publishers benefit from accepting more articles, their objectivity may be compromised.
''Publishers need to be independent," said Jeffrey Drazen, editor-in-chief of the New England Journal of Medicine, ''He who pays the fiddler calls the tune."
Hemai Parthasarathy, managing editor of PLoS Biology, said she has no intention of sacrificing quality for the sake of printing more articles. The editorial process at PLoS is similar to other journals in which manuscripts are evaluated by a panel of independent peer reviewers who determine whether the research is acceptable for publication. Since its inception, PLoS Biology has been receiving more manuscripts than it is able to print, and the journal is committed to publishing only the best papers.
Some specialists also question whether impact factors are a meaningful gauge of a journal's success. When deciding where to send an article, researchers often rely on their overall impression of a journal's reputation rather than its impact factor.
But rank clearly matters at some universities -- primarily those outside of the United States, where impact factors are used in determining tenure and promotion.
''Where it's published is important, but it shouldn't be as important as the quality of the paper itself," Parthasarathy said.