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Public Library of Science Expands
Hassan Masum, 29 Jan 05

The Public Library of Science (affectionately known as "PLoS") is an emerging model for peer-reviewed journal publishing, in which all articles are freely available under a Creative Commons license. Its aim? "Open the doors to the world's library of scientific knowledge by giving any scientist, physician, patient, or student - anywhere in the world - unlimited access to the latest scientific research."

Back in one of our first posts, on the early days of PLoS, Jamais said: "All very cool, but if reputable scientists and interesting research teams don't use the journals to publish their results, it might take awhile for PLoS to build up any steam."

Well, in early 2005 PLoS is alive and well. In fact, three new journals are being started up this year.

The three new PLoS journals are:

  • PLoS Computational Biology: for "works of exceptional significance that further the understanding of living systems at all scales, from molecules and cells to populations and ecosystems, through the application of computational methods."
  • PLoS Genetics: "publishes papers that provide important biological insights and transforming tools and technologies for genetics research, through human studies as well as investigations of model organisms—from mice and flies, to plants and bacteria."
  • PLoS Pathogens: "will publish the most significant studies of the interactions of host cells and organisms with bacteria, viruses, fungi and parasites."

So how good are the current two journals, PLoS Biology and PLoS Medicine? Since they're not hidden behind a subscription wall, have a look and decide for yourself - many articles deal with topics of wide interest, like trade and health, a global HIV/AIDS vaccine development strategy. open-source cures for tropical diseases, and the symbiotic future of math and biology.

Quality doesn't come for free: funding is provided by authors' research budgets (but waived for those who can't afford it). By treating publishing as a one-time expense - a relatively inexpensive part of the overall research process - publicly-funded research is made accessible to all.

There have been a few creative uses already. And since both derivative and commercial uses are permitted with attribution, we will hopefully see articles being reprinted, translated, and adapted in increasing numbers. If PLoS can continue to attract high-quality submissions, it will be a clear vindication of the goals and principles of open-access publishing.

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From my perspective as a research scientist, PLoS Biology is a very good journal indeed -- perhaps, in terms of the quality of science it publishes, the best in its field regardless of publishing model.

What I would like to know is how useful interested lay persons find the content aimed at them -- article synopses, overview articles and so on. Improving lay access to specialized research was an early focus of PLoS, and I'd be interested to hear how it's being received.

Posted by: sennoma on 29 Jan 05

I'm a scientist too, and the PLoS journals came up in conversation in the lab last week. Apparently PloS Biology doesn't yet have an "impact factor" - I think this is probably because it hasn't been around for two full years yet (?). There's an essay explaining, "What is journal impact factor?" here:

Impact Factor is important, because when scientists are being assessed and considered for jobs, there is often a calcuation something like "impact factor" * "how frequently that work has been cited" to numerically assess the value of your publication record. So it's difficult to justify to colleagues and collaborators publishing in a journal with no impact factor, when it might otherwise be possible to get our scores multiplied by 20 or more. Perhaps this issue will disappear by the end of next year?

I'm contacting PLoS by email to find out more, here I'm just reporting the reactions and questions my colleagues raised about the option of publishing in PLoS, in case it is of interest in the discussion.

I'm wholly in favour of public access to the results of research. Some of us are funded through research councils, and ultimately by the tax payer. I believe for that reason if no other citizens should have free access to the fruits of research in journals online and in university libraries as well.

Posted by: Alice on 30 Jan 05

Following up - I had a helpful reply from editors of PLoS Biology, confirming that they expect to have an impact factor by May/June. Also they already have 500 citations (by ISI) from the three issues published in 2003, and articles from PLoS Biology and PLoS Medicine have gathered good attention in news media e.g.

Posted by: Alice on 7 Feb 05

Thank you both for the thoughtful comments.

How useful do interested lay persons find PLOS? As a non-biological scientist (among other things), I find it quite useful. The synopses and essays are excellent for getting the feel of a topic, and for introducing current issues. And I would guess that, among non-scientists who enjoy science books and documentaries, more would already be reading the non-technical parts of PLOS than are reading the equivalent parts of Nature or Science - and that this number will increase substantially as people begin linking directly to the more interesting stories.

Alice, re a PLOS impact factor, here is a quote from a study available on the ISI site (OA = "Open Access"):

"As a group, journals [with] an OA distribution model have not achieved significantly greater citation impact. However, individual OA journals are appearing among the highest ranked journals, even within a few years of their launch. We are tracking some of the newest OA titles with great interest, as their early citation performance has been exceptional. PLOS Biology, launched in the latter part of 2003 achieved rapid and wide-spread notice. This is well-reflected in its year-to-date citations in 2004."

(from "Open Access Journals in the ISI Citation Databases: Analysis of Impact Factors and Citation Patterns" - a citation study from Thomson Scientific, by Marie E. McVeigh, October 2004.)

I too strongly support public access to research results. Preprints have made this a de facto reality in some fields - if a free version is not available on a computer scientist's web site, my first reaction is that the research is probably not of high quality. Hopefully the success of PLOS will help spread this meme...

Posted by: Hassan Masum on 8 Feb 05



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