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Thursday, 26 April, 2001, 14:38 GMT 15:38 UK
Scientists threaten journal protest
vials on a lab bench
Scientists want research results to be widely available
By BBC News Online technology correspondent Mark Ward

Scientists around the world are preparing to boycott scientific journals unless they make old research papers available for free.

This movement is not going to stop no matter how much the publishers scream

Dr Michael Ashburner, Plos group
The strike has been called as part of a larger plan to establish a vast online library of scientific research material, much of which is currently in the hands of the journals rather than the scientists who did the work.

The researchers behind the boycott say the library is needed to preserve academic freedom, stimulate study and creativity and ensure that science stays free of commercial pressures.

But the call to set up the library is meeting resistance from publishers and academic associations, which are keen to protect their copyright on scientific papers.

In September this year, many scientists could stop sending in papers to journals and refuse to renew subscriptions to them in support of a plan to create a huge Public Library of Science (Plos) on the internet.

New technology

In an open letter, campaigners said: "this public library would vastly increase the accessibility and utility of the scientific literature, enhance scientific productivity, and catalyse integration of the disparate communities of knowledge and ideas in biomedical sciences."

So far over 17,000 scientists around the world, including some Nobel Laureates, have signed the letter calling for the establishment of the library. Numbers are growing at a rate of several hundred per day.

"I've never known a movement like this," said Michael Ashburner, a member of the advocacy group for the Plos and a geneticist at Cambridge University, UK.

Dr Ashburner said the online library was essential if scientists were to keep up with developments in their field.

He said the amount of scientific literature in genetics alone doubles every 10 years, and scientists needed sophisticated databases that could search the full text of papers to aid their work.

DNA example

The Plos group wants the library to act like the GenBank repository which makes DNA sequence information freely available.

The idea for freely available repositories of papers was started at the Los Alamos Laboratory by Paul Ginsparg, who in 1994 set up a the e-Print Archive to host reprints of physics and mathematics papers. Now, the idea is spreading to the biomedical community and beyond.

Nature Nature
The big journals are deciding how to respond
To fill the library, the Plos group is asking scientific journals to make the full text of the papers they publish freely available in the library only six months after they have been first printed.

They hope that the six-month delay will mollify those journals which fear they will lose subscribers if the papers they publish are available on the web too soon.

Some journals, such as the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences and the British Medical Journal, have already signed up to the project, and declared their willingness to put papers into the library.

Peer review

The group wants to set up the library to hold the papers, believing it is better to have a single reference point rather than let them sit on the websites of hundreds of individual journals that have widely different policies of giving access to the papers.

To achieve their aims, the group behind the Public Library of Science are calling for a boycott of those publications that refuse to support the library.

The boycott is due to start in September and asks those who signed the letter to refuse to renew subscriptions, and to refuse to submit or review papers for journals.

"The quality of the journals absolutely depends on the peer review process," said Dr Ashburner. "If the journals lose that it will kill them." He said the Plos group had not ruled out setting up its own journal to publish the papers not being submitted to journals.

Linking compromise

But the idea is not winning everyone over. Only seven journals have signed up, and some scientific societies that publish specialist journals have declared their opposition.

The American Society for Microbiology has said it finds the aims of the public library group "too extreme and unrealistic for ASM to support".

Some fear that younger scientists will be unwilling to put their name to the letter or take part in the boycott for fear of limiting their career.

The two most prestigious research journals, Nature and Science, are currently debating what action to take. However, Science has said it is willing to support a compromise which puts a searchable version of a paper into the library, but the links to copies lead back to the website of the journal that originally published it.

"[The library] may not happen this year but it is going to happen because the technology is there and scientists will demand it," said Dr Ashburner. "This movement is not going to stop no matter how much the publishers scream."

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