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Scientists found virtual publishing house and plan to launch two electronic titles this year

BRAZ

With US$ 9 million in cash, donated by an institution from California, the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation, a group of famous American scientists, led by Harold Varmus, the winner of the Nobel Prize for Medicine in 1989, recently announced the creation of the Public Library of Science, or simply the PloS (www.publiclibraryofscience.org). It is a non-profit publishing house that intends to launch books via the Internet, to compete with the major magazines of the sector, such as Science, Nature and medical publications.

By the end of the year, two on-line titles will be created, first PLoS Biology and, next, PLoS Medicine. “Later on, we are going to begin with magazines more centered on (medical) disciplines like oncology and development biology, and, afterwards, more specialized titles”, says Varmos, a former director of the National Institutes of Health (NIH) and today the president of the Memorial-Sloan Kettering Cancer Center, in an interview for the Pesquisa FAPESP magazine.

The sections and the content of the PloS magazines will follow the pattern hallowed by the major scientific publications and – an important detail – all the articles accepted will have to pass through the traditional process of selection and assessment by a specialist in the theme (peer review). The venture has the objective of making cutting edge scientific information democratically available, in a rapid, instantaneous manner, to any researcher, above all to those who do not have the financial means to pay for subscriptions to the electronic or paper versions of the major magazines. Alongside the laureate Varmus, heading up the setting up of the PloS are researchers Michael B. Eisen, from the University of California at Berkeley, and Patrick O. Brown, from Stanford University.

Those who publish on the PLoS are going to enjoy another advantage: the copyright over the articles will remain with the researchers who wrote them – and not in the possession of the magazine that published them, as normally occurs in the scientific publishing world. Although they are the holders of the copyright over their own texts, the authors that publish in the PloS will not be able to prevent their articles from being distributed by third parties, provided that the credit for the work is duly respected.

Not everything in the PloS’s publications will be free of charge. The financial health of the scientific publishing house created by the researchers will depend not only on any new grants and donations that it may come to receive, but also on charging a fee of US$ 1,500 per published article. Varmus and his colleagues want the costs of publishing the articles in the PloS to start featuring as one more item of costs provided for in research budgets. In the United States, the Howard Hughes Medical Institute has already committed itself to bear the publication fees for its 350 researchers, whenever their articles are aimed at free electronic access magazines, like those of the PloS.

To pay for publishing in scientific magazines is hardly a novelty. There are printed magazines that are already doing this. But the PsoS’s fee, let us agree, is steep, above all for scientists from developing countries. “We are hoping to reduce or to eliminate the fees for researchers from nations that cannot put up with the costs of publication”, the Nobel Prizewinner for Medicine avers. “But an analysis of current scientific literature suggests that this is going to occur in a relatively small percentage of cases. Not because we are gong to be prejudiced against these articles. But rather, unfortunately, the number of scientists working in these (poor) countries is relatively small.”

The feasibility of an enterprise of such a scale will depend on important scientists supporting it. The creators of the virtual publishing house are mustering renowned researchers to take part in the PloS’s editorial board. One of these first class names is Sweden’s Svante Pääbo, one of the directors of the Max Planck Institute of Evolutionary Anthropology, in Leipzig, Germany. His view of the enterprise is a realistic one. “If it is capable of attracting good articles for its first few magazines, the PloS will then be capable of expanding and of becoming a real competitor for many publications whose subscriptions are expensive today,” Pääbo says. “I don’t think anybody is going to stop publishing in Nature or Science, but there is room for another top magazine.”

PLoS is not the only venture to make on-line access to scientific information democratic. Launched in May 2000, the BioMed Central (www.biomedcentral.com), for example, publishes about 100 medical magazines on-line, some of its own, others from third parties, but all with peer review and free access. Biomed Central, which is part of the European publishing house Current Science Group, usually charges US$ 500 per published article, but gives discounts or exemption from the fee in the cases of researchers without resources.

Maintained by the NIH, PubMed Central (www.pubmedcentral.nih.gov) works in a similar fashion, but more along the lines of a digital library of some magazines in the area of life sciences that have agreed to make their content free of charge, in whole or in part. There are other similar initiatives, including in Brazil, such as SciELO-Scientific Electronic Library Online (www.scielo.br). At no cost at all, SciELO makes available the content of 93 national publications, from the areas of the humane, exact and biological sciences. “These ventures for free access to scientific information do not bust the system (of the big magazines), but they are an advance,” says Abel Packer, a director of the the Latin American and Caribbean Center on Health Sciences Information (Bireme), one of SciELO’s creators.

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