The first modern peer-reviewed journal, Philosophical Transactions, was launched by Britain’s Royal Society in 1665 with little fanfare and not much more than moral support from the crown, yet it would revolutionize the way scientists shared information. Last week’s similarly unheralded debut of the online journal Medicine might be nearly as significant.
Medicine, at www.plosmedicine.org, is the nation’s first major “open access” medical publication, meaning peer-reviewed ideas, discoveries and research are available free and without restrictions on their use. That’s important not only to scientists; if the journal succeeds in democratizing the spread of quality research, it could accelerate the discovery of disease cures.
In 2000, Michael Eisen, then a 34-year-old UC Berkeley scientist, founded the nonprofit Public Library of Science, hoping to aid those researchers unable to pay five-figure annual subscription charges or $30 fees to download a single article from a commercial journal.
He didn’t get far until last year, when he managed to acquire first-publication rights for a manuscript by his brother Jonathan that had been sought by both of the world’s top science journals, Science and Nature. Medicine’s inaugural issue features articles by leading scholars on issues such as the global burden of disease and how the immune system is altered by smoking.
Eisen’s efforts are already under fire. Last week, commercial medical publishers, worried that free journals could diminish their profits, urged National Institutes of Health Director Elias A. Zerhouni to reverse an earlier promise to require publicly funded scientists to publish their work in free journals. Zerhouni should stand firm, recognizing, as Rep. Ralph Regula (R-Ohio) recently put it, that because taxpayers pay for the research, even pay for the journals, they are entitled to see the results.
Until Zerhouni and legislators are ready to fully back open access, Medicine’s future will depend less on how much support it secures from Congress than on how much positive “spin” Eisen is able to generate for the journal in this nation’s tightly knit community of top scientists. That may sound like an awful way to launch a journal as high-minded as Medicine. But such a spontaneous gathering of great minds is what made Philosophical Transactions so successful in the 17th century.