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The following article, by Rachel L. Robson, was published in the University Daily Kansan in 2003.

Share, don't sell, scientific knowledge

Science is about sharing.

That’s been the feeling of scientists since Aristotle. All research builds on earlier discoveries, so sharing of information among researchers, past and present, is essential for intellectual progress.

That’s why scientists publish their results in journals, where their peers can read them. But as increasingly fewer for-profit publishers control increasingly more of the journal market, prices have skyrocketed, forcing universities like KU to cancel subscriptions. Scholars, unable to access information locked in pricey journals, were incensed.

So in 2000, a group of scientists mad about overpriced journals did what anyone with a gripe does in today’s internet age: they started an online petition.

Three years and more than 30,000 signatures later, their petition has mutated into one of the most promising developments in science publishing. Next month, the first issue of a new journal, Public Library of Science-Biology, will be launched, which will be available free online to everyone in the world. This publication, soon to be followed by Public Library of Science-Medicine in 2004, is the direct result of online activism.

It’s also a scientist’s dream come true. Giving access to cutting-edge research to anyone with a computer will certainly push knowledge forward, seeding currently inconceivable discoveries. A genius in a threadbare lab in Nepal or Albania may have a world-changing epiphany, because they now share in the discoveries of their more fortunate colleagues.

“Technology has made it possible to imagine a world where the free full text of every scientific paper is available to everyone in the universe,” said Michael Eisen, cofounder of Public Library of Science and a researcher at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory. Before joining the PLoS effort, Eisen pioneered the use of “gene chips,” a stunning technology that allows dramatic, nearly-instantaneous insights into genetic causes of disease, but which relies on having access to a wealth of previously published data. Open-access science publishing through venues like PLoS will allow gene chips—and countless other technologies—to finally live up to their potential.

Eisen isn’t the only renowned scientist developing PLoS. Nobel laureate and former director of the National Institutes of Health Harold Varmus is also a cofounder. The inaugural editor of PLoS, Vivian Siegel previously edited Cell, one of the most prestigious journals in the world—which also happens to be owned by the for-profit publishing giant Elsevier.

Siegel said she defected from the world of for-profit science publishing because she’s “an idealist.” “All the editors at Cell wanted to make our articles open-access, but Elsevier didn’t want to do it,” she recounted. “When I pointed out that our position made me feel like I wasn’t working for the benefit of the scientific community, my boss said, ‘What? You think you’re a scientist?’ I realized I couldn’t act on my principles and continue at Cell.”

The first principle of science is sharing. “That’s what knowledge is all about. If you can’t share knowledge, then what good is it?” KU emeritus professor of chemistry and PLoS petition signer John A. Landgrebe wondered.

It’s appropriate that the internet, which was developed by researchers to share scholarly information in its very earliest days, should enable Public Library of Science to exist. Thanks to technology and idealism, knowledge can finally be shared as it was meant to be.

It’s about time.

copyright Rachel L. Robson, 2003.

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