THEY DECIDED TO CHANCE IT. Their biggest obstacle out of the gate was what's known as the "impact factor." The pecking order of academic publications is determined by how often their articles are cited by others; more citations means a higher impact factor. In a system where career prospects are measured as much by where you publish as what you publish, impact is everything, the difference between getting hired by a top-tier university versus some college in the sticks. An ambitious young researcher would be crazy to pass up the chance of placing an article in journals like Cell or Nature or the New England Journal of Medicine.
One British publisher, in a clear nod to the NIH's efforts, had already launched an open-access site called BioMed Central. But Varmus worried that it didn't aim high enough. The view among scientists at the time, he explains, was that free publications would be "vanity press and bottom-feeding"—too low-impact to attract great papers. To overcome this, Eisen says, PLOS would have to "get people comfortable with the idea of open access by introducing journals that looked and functioned just like the snottiest journals they knew, but used a different economic model."
Before long, PLOS Biology was rejecting loads of submissions, just like any elite journal. "In some ways, we had to become what we loathed," Eisen says.
The business plan was relatively simple: PLOS journals would cover expenses by charging a per-paper publication fee (currently a sliding scale from free to $2,900) that researchers could write into their grant proposals. The founders secured a $9 million startup grant and raised eyebrows by poaching respected editors from Cell, Nature, and The Lancet. They recruited a star-studded board of directors that included Creative Commons founder Lawrence Lessig and Gates Foundation CFO Allan Golston. And they fought hard for highly regarded papers, including one from Eisen's own brother, who was being courted by Science and Nature. Not long after the October 2003 debut of their flagship title, PLOS Biology, it was rejecting loads of submissions, just like any elite journal. "In some ways, we had to become what we loathed," Eisen says.
Next came PLOS Medicine, followed by a series of publications tailored to specific research areas like genetics and computational biology. But the game-changer, Eisen says, was PLOS ONE, a web-only journal unveiled in December 2006. It was precisely the sort of publication its founders originally had envisioned. Papers are peer-reviewed for scientific rigor, but not for importance—that's for the research community to determine. With more than 23,000 papers published last year, it is now the world's most prolific science journal.
The year after PLOS ONE went online, open-access advocates scored another victory: Congress passed a bill forcing life-science publishers to send NIH-funded papers to PubMed Central within 12 months of publication. The papers could only be read online and not downloaded, but it was a start.
Still, the industry has engineered at least two attempts to gut the NIH policy, including the Research Works Act, introduced in 2011 by Reps. Carolyn Maloney (D-N.Y.) and Darrell Issa (R-Calif.). Elsevier, the bill's main supporter, backed off after mathematicians boycotted the company and Eisen publicized a bunch of interestingly timed donations from company execs to Maloney. "The Elsevier people were referring to the bill as their bill—they're just so dumb!" he says.
In February, amid the furor surrounding Swartz's death, the White House ordered all federal agencies with research expenditures greater than $100 million to propose policies that would let anyone read, download, and data-mine publicly funded papers after a waiting period—an apparent improvement over the NIH policy. In response, the Association of American Publishers has lobbied for an open-access portal run by the industry. Eisen likens it to letting the NRA control firearms background checks. (Coincidentally, the AAP's earlier campaign against open access was dubbed PRISM, the same acronym the NSA used for the spying operation exposed by Edward Snowden.)
"I've never met an academic who wants their research behind a paywall," says Robert Swartz, Aaron's father.
The publishers insist that they add value to the papers by coordinating peer review and determining which ones are noteworthy, and thus should be allowed to maintain control over their products. "We believe that the publication and dissemination of research articles is best left to a free market," executives of the Genetics Society of America, the publisher of the journal Genetics, wrote to the Obama administration. "The primary scientific literature is often highly technical and specific and generally not understandable to a general audience. Enabling public access will, thus, generally not advance public knowledge or understanding."
But the PLOS model is only gaining steam. Now that it's clear you can give away content and still make money, many publishers have launched their own open-access experiments. Even Elsevier now offers an "author pays" open-access option with more than 1,600 of its journals, and 40 use it exclusively. ELife, a nonprofit initiative created recently by big-name scientists and major foundations, promises to push the industry even further in that direction.
While PLOS has triggered a quiet revolution in academic circles, Swartz's death has sparked public interest in open access and compelled privacy and internet freedom groups to pick up the banner. "After Aaron's death, we figured it should be something we focused more on," explains Adi Kamdar of the Electronic Frontier Foundation. "We think it is a transparency issue. People should know how government money is being spent and have access to what comes out of it."
The Obama administration's research-sharing directive, the response to a We the People petition, came shortly after Swartz's suicide, as did a new bipartisan bill that would require publishers to make most federally funded research freely available within six months of publication. Robert Swartz, who has been publicizing his son's cause, says, "I've never met an academic who wants their research behind a paywall."
"It's basically inevitable," Eisen says, "that this is going to be the dominant mode of scientific publishing."
In the meantime, Michael Eisen may have found a way to do what Aaron Swartz was trying to do without sacrificing life, liberty, or career. For nervous scientists looking for evidence that they can abandon the paywalled journals, he offers himself as Exhibit A. Eisen earned his tenure from Berkeley and landed the prestigious title of investigator at the Howard Hughes Medical Institute even though his lab publishes exclusively in open-access journals. Some people will cling to the old ways until the bitter end, he says, but "it's basically inevitable that this is going to be the dominant mode of scientific publishing."
In the end, his disdain isn't directed at the publishers who hoard scientific knowledge so much as at his colleagues who let them get away with it. "One of the reasons advances in publishing don't happen is that people are willing to live with all sorts of crap from journals in order to get the imprimatur the journal title has as a measure of the impact of their work," Eisen says. "It's easy to blame Elsevier, right? To think that there's some big corporation that's preventing scientists from doing the right thing. It's just bullshit. Elsevier doesn't prevent anyone from doing anything. Scientists do this themselves!"