Why We Don’t Talk About PLoS

Here’s a joke that often runs in science: scientists create drinks in a bar for free, get other scientists to review them for free, and then hand over the rights to the bar owner who then distributes the drinks for profit. Except it isn’t a joke at all. It’s the reality of scientific publishing.

Scientists need to communicate their work and they need other scientists to evaluate the work to see if it is up to standard before it is released to the wider scientific community, which is the ethos of the peer review process. Journals claim to be the middle-man or the distributor; they profit because no scientist has the time, or capital, to devout to spreading their work. While in the past, before the advent of the internet, such a model may have made sense, today is a much different story. As a science graduate student, I find it a very quant idea to flip through a journal in order to find articles related to my field of work. If I need to find articles, I search the internet via Google which is much more efficient. A few years ago, before much of the content in journals was online, scientists like my supervisor had to manually search for articles in libraries. This was only possible because the university’s libraries, where scientists are based, would pay a subscription for journals and thus generated profit for such journals. The more prestigious the journal, defined in terms of impact factor (basically the number of times other scientists cites the articles in the journal), the more other scientists want their work to appear in the journal and thus supposedly dictates the exorbitant subscription prices. Simple supply and demand, apparently.

I don’t want to go into the scientific publishing houses business model for this post, because I think the material demands another more comprehensive post. As the title of this article suggests, I want to discuss the Public Library of Science (PLoS) or why we don’t discuss it as nearly as much as we should. There are countless articles bemoaning the incomprehensibility of science, or the jargon we use to communicate with one another. A clear consensus seems to emerge; since taxpayers are the predominate funders of science research, through funding vehicles such as the NIH, then why can’t the public view science papers for free? First, although I agree with the principle of this argument, I think that its central premise is shaky. For example, American taxpayers are the principle funders of corporate welfare and yet they have no say in how, say a big business, is run and how they should distribute their products. The same applies for anyone receiving government assistance; we don’t dictate how doctors do their jobs or set up their practice guidelines and standards because they receive government money, or how pensioners should spend theirs.

Science should be open access. But not for the sole benefit of the public. This is not because the public shouldn’t be involved or scientists shouldn’t care about what the public thinks. It is because the main beneficiaries of an open access model are scientists. Papers are how we spread our ideas and work, and if other scientists can’t read my work because their university can’t afford the journal subscription, that hurts both mine and their career. If I submit a paper to PLoS I know that other scientists can read it for free, which is why it is puzzling that the journal isn’t talked about more often. It’s a great model!

The main problem is that every scientist wants and desires their work to be widely recognised. They want the prestige of having something submitted in Cell, Science, Nature, or any other big name journal. Basic game theory dictates that a boycott of these journals in order to change the system would not work since the boycotters would automatically give an advantage to the prospects of the non-boycotters (as we’ve seen and created a journal such as PLoS in the first place).

Recently, the website Sci-Hub has been in the news. The website offers scientists, and any interested member of the public, the opportunity to view any scientific article which is usually behind an expensive paywall. In business jargon this would be called “disruption” because it upends the model run by decades from old, ossifying top publishers. While PLoS is certainly a disruption, Sci-Hub is even more so because it reminds scientists and the public what science publishing should be about: scientists finding ways for their work to be widely accessible and known.

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