Open Letter: access to scientific literature

Public Library of Science Initiative feedback at publiclibraryofscience.org
Fri Jan 19 12:51:48 EST 2001

Dear Colleagues,

We would like to call your attention to the circulation of
an open letter in support of unrestricted access to the
published record of scientific research. More than 1500
scientists from 52 countries have now signed this
letter, pledging that their voluntary support of scholarly
journals will be limited to journals that make the primary
research reports that they have published freely available
for distribution and use by independent online public
libraries, within six months after publication.  The
letter, a continuously updated list of the scientists who
have signed it, and some answers to frequently asked
questions are posted at:
This site also provides a way for colleagues to sign the
open letter online.

We have appended a copy of an editorial written by
Richard J. Roberts which will be appearing soon in
PNAS that explains why he supports this effort. We
hope it will help convince you to sign the letter as well.

This is a grassroots initiative, and the breadth and depth
of support it receives from the scientific community will
determine its success in persuading our journals to change
their practices. If you support this effort, we also ask
you spend an hour or two of your time in the next week
talking to colleagues at your own and other institutions,
explaining to them the reasons that you chose to support
it, and encouraging them to join you in signing the letter.
Your effort can really make a difference.

Please also take the time to contact the editors and
publishers of journals that are important to you, informing
them of your support of this initiative, and encouraging
them to adopt the policy that the letter advocates. We
would greatly appreciate hearing about about any such
efforts you are able to make.

Finally, we welcome your advice and ideas. Thank you for
your support and help.


Public Library of Science coordinators
(feedback at publiclibraryofscience.org)

Michael Ashburner, University of Cambridge
Patrick O. Brown, Stanford University
Mary Case, Association of Research Libraries
Michael B. Eisen, LBNL and UC Berkeley
Lee Hartwell, Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center
Marc Kirschner, Harvard University
Chaitan Khosla, Stanford University
Roel Nusse, Stanford University
Richard J. Roberts, New England Biolabs
Matthew Scott, Stanford University
Harold Varmus, Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center
Barbara Wold, Caltech



In 1999, Harold Varmus, then Director of the NIH, proposed
a bold new initiative called PubMed Central (PMC) designed
to provide a central repository for literature in the life
sciences (see Science 284: 718, 1999). Following an initial
period of confusion, PMC now exists. It has a clear
mission, a stable home and a nucleus of papers. Its mission
is to provide a comprehensive electronic archive of the
peer-reviewed literature relevant to the biological
sciences. Its home is the National Center for Biotechnology
Information (NCBI), whose Director is David Lipman. NCBI is
also home to GenBank, the public archive of DNA sequences.
The publications already present in PMC and freely
accessible to the world's scientific community, include all
articles published in the Proceedings of the National
Academy of Sciences (PNAS) that are more than one month old
and which were in a suitable electronic format, as well as
articles from a number of other journals such as Molecular
Biology of the Cell, Arthritis Research and Breast Cancer
Research. Several other journals including The British
Medical Journal (BMJ) and Nucleic Acids Research (NAR) are
committed to join. A full list is available at

PMC will only contain articles from the peer-reviewed
literature and is not intended to be the sole repository or
distributor of the publications that it hosts. In fact,
journals are encouraged to distribute their material as
widely as possible, through their own web sites or online
distributors. Furthermore, publishers do not need to
relinquish their normal copyright provisions for the
further commercial use of the material. The great value
that PMC brings to the scientific community is the
opportunity to search, not just titles and abstracts, but
entire papers, for interesting content. Just as GenBank has
proved invaluable to molecular biologists, PMC could serve
an equally important role within the broader biological
community. Once a central repository and archive for the
world's biological literature becomes populated it will
have a far-reaching impact on the conduct of scientific
research. It will improve productivity and will allow new
approaches to searching the literature. No longer will we
need to spend hours searching among the stacks of the
local, or not so local, library to find articles essential
for our research. Scientists, physicians, teachers and lay
people, who are currently disenfranchised from the world's
literature because of minimal research budgets, will have
access, perhaps not to the very latest research, but at
least to reasonably current research. Our colleagues in the
developing world and many of the smaller research
institutions will have unprecedented access to the
scientific literature.

To populate PMC, all life science journals are being asked
to provide their contents free of charge following a
suitable delay beyond the date of print publication. In the
case of PNAS the delay is one month, for other journals it
may be longer. This is to mitigate any deleterious effect
on subscriptions and the financial health of the journals
that might result from free access. For instance, if a
journal were to make its content immediately available to
PMC, there would be a real danger that subscriptions to the
print or online copy of the journal would drop
precipitously as libraries become increasingly pressed to
find funds for journals. What is a reasonable delay? I
would argue that six months seems a reasonable time for a
journal to monopolize the content. Most of us would not
dream of scanning the contents of a journal published six
months ago unless we were searching for a specific article.
Thus it seems unlikely that a large number of subscriptions
would be lost if six month old issues were made freely
available. I think rather few worthwhile journals would be
adversely affected if they were to institute such a policy.
I thus welcome, and have signed on to, the initiative
proposed by Dr. Pat Brown of Stanford University. He was
one of the chief proponents of PMC and is now circulating
an open letter from scientists urging journals to
participate. The letter is currently posted at
www.publiclibraryofscience.org. Signatories show their
support for open access and pledge to publish in, edit or
review for, and personally subscribe to, only those
journals that grant unrestricted distribution rights within
6 months of publication to PMC and similar entities. As
word of this initiative spreads, many of us hope that
thousands of scientists, both senior and junior, will sign
on. Even more important, we hope that many journals,
especially the more prestigious ones, will join PNAS, NAR,
BMJ and others in agreeing to make their content freely
available no later than six months after publication.

This initiative is very much a grass roots affair. All
scientists from students to professors are being asked to
join. It is an initiative that, if successful now, will
provide a vital resource to students and their professors
alike during the coming years. Why might a journal not join
something that is so obviously good for science? Some
publishers argue that they will lose revenues from
subscriptions. This is hard to take seriously, when many
journals make their dated content freely available on their
own web site and some even offer prepublication copy. I
suspect that many publishers and their senior editorial
staff are fearful of losing control and jeopardizing
favorite programs that they view as benefiting science and
which are presently supported from journal profits.
However, when I ask students they seem overwhelmingly in
favor of PMC. Indeed as a practicing scientist how can one
reasonably be against it? It will save much time and make
invaluable resources uniformly available. It is good for
everybody. Both GenBank and PubMed, also run from NCBI,
have been immensely successful and have driven science
forward. PMC is the next step.

One might have thought that the scientific societies would
have been at the forefront to promote the interests of
their members and to promulgate science by all means
possible. So why have the major life science societies,
such as ASM, ASBMB, AAAS etc, not followed the lead of the
National Academy of Sciences and rushed to join PMC? At the
very least the societies should poll their members to gauge
their enthusiasm for PMC. Could it be that the societies
have become seduced by the cash that their journals produce
and the professional interests of the scientists they
represent are taking second place? I would urge all
scientific societies and academic publishers such as the
university and institutional presses to take a hard look at
their priorities and ask whether they support science or
Mammon. I also urge the large commercial publishers to join
PMC. They cannot claim to be serving the best interests of
their customers by trying to balkanize the published
literature. Imagine how stymied we would all be without
GenBank. Most of all though I urge our young scientists to
think hard and carefully about this issue. Your future is
at stake. Here is your chance to make your voice heard and
indicate your priorities in the scientific enterprise. Join
me and sign on!

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