Professor Michael Eisen: A Pioneer of Open Access Science

In this special interview, Eisen discusses the conception of the open access movement and the future of scientific communication with Editor-in-Chief of The Tower, Mohamad Ali Najia.

Michael Eisen is a developmental biologist at the University of California Berkeley and an Investigator of the Howard Hughes Medical Institute. He is also a co-founder of the open access publisher Public Library of Science (PLOS). Eisen has spent the majority of his scientific career advocating for open access -- the unrestricted online access to peer-reviewed scholarly research. Today, PLOS is the largest peer-reviewed journal is the world and catalyzed a culture shift in the scientific community.

The Need for Open Access

In the 1990s, the Human Genome Project shifted the focus of molecular biology from studying individual genes in isolation to exploring networks of genes systematically throughout the entire genome. As a post-doctoral fellow, Eisen was generating massive datasets on the behavior of every gene within the genomes of yeast and humans. "We outstripped our ability to understand the results of these experiments just by reading the literature paper-by-paper," said Eisen.

The explosion of scientific data coincided with the rise of the modern internet and the beginnings of scientific journals publishing papers online. "The most sensible way we thought to approach the analysis of our experiments was to download all of the relevant papers and write an algorithm to uncover new biological relationships that would relate to our data," Eisen explained. "However, we quickly encountered an obstacle." Scientific journals had refused to share their online papers freely because they owned the copyright. Eisen realized first-hand that the practice of giving control of the scientific literature over to the publishing community was obstructing scientific progress.

Dr. Patrick Brown, Stanford professor and Eisen's post-doctoral advisor, along with Dr. Harold Varmus, the Director of the National Institutes of Health (NIH) at the time, tried to rectify this shortcoming by creating a public database at the NIH to house the pre-print versions of published papers. Today, this database is known as PubMed and is an essential tool for modern-day science. Initially, journals would have to voluntarily opt-in to share their published papers in the PubMed database; however, few journals did and Eisen naively thought most journals would.

The Rise of PLOS

Out of the lack of journals contributing to the PubMed database, Eisen, Brown, and Varmus decided to create their own journal to serve as a model and locus for open access publishing. The formation of PLOS was to implement viable ways of providing scientists with open access content, and to demonstrate that a business model of charging author fees versus subscription fees could be successful.

"Closed access" journals charge a subscription fee to readers in order to view their content, trapping papers behind a paywall. However, the majority of research performed in the United States is supported by the taxpayer through grants from the federal government. "The public already purchased the research, so we should not have to pay to read the results," stated Eisen in arguing against the reader subscription fee business model. Rather, PLOS charges authors a fee when they submit a paper for publication and provides free, unlimited re-use rights to published papers for anyone in the world.

Launched in 2003, PLOS Biology was a selective print journal that employed editors that previously worked for Nature and Science. "PLOS Biology did not displace Nature or Science, but provided the scientific community legitimacy in an open access journal," stated Eisen. "In fact, therewere several things about PLOS Biology that were counter to our original goals, namely its selectivity."

Eisen focused his efforts on PLOS ONE, a non-selective online journal that revolutionized publishing in two ways. First, compared to most journals, which are discipline-specific, PLOS ONE considers papers from any discipline within the hard sciences. Second, and most importantly, reviewers only assess the technical validity of submitted papers, not their likely scientific importance or significance.

"How do three individuals who review a paper today have the foresight to anticipate the significance of a scientific work 5, 10 or 20 years from now?" questioned Eisen. The scientific community continuously assesses a paper's merits, thus the significance of a paper evolves with time. Therefore, high selectivity in publishing scientifically-valid papers skews the literature landscape. "We want to publish papers that are 'durable' over time, rather than 'sexy' in the moment," explained Eisen.

Scientific journals have become an essential piece of scientific infrastructure needed to communicate novel findings, catalyze new research ideas, and perform modern-day science. The creation of PLOS has sparked a culture shift in how to communicate science. PLOS ONE, in particular, has greatly reduced the time and money needed to publish individual papers and inspired post-publication review of papers by the scientific community.

The Future of Science Communication

PLOS ONE set out to divorce the act of assessing the impact of a scientific paper from the act of publishing. Eisen, therefore, envisions the future of PLOS in developing a system for the scientific community to organize and stratify the literature in several ways so that the literature can be useful in many contexts. "We want to make the use of journals as they are today completely unnecessary," envisions Eisen.

This vision stems from the modern pre-publication peer-review process, which as he describes it, is a "conservative, cumbersome, capricious and intrusive" process that "slows down the communication of new ideas and discoveries." He goes as far to say that it should be "more or less completely" done away with. "We need to apply different ways of assessing a scientific work post-publication," Eisen affirms.

He believes that the future of science publishing should be an unmediated act of communicating information from a scientist to the general public and scientific community. "There should be no reason to inhibit a scientist wanting to share their work nor their ability to do so; there should not be a time delay nor impediment to doing it," passionately expressed Eisen. "What we need to figure out in sci- ence communication is how to get publishing out of the way of scientists communicating."

Eisen is a test case for a successful scientific career built on publishing excessively in open access journals. PLOS is a highly innovate service and has proved extraordinarily popular by the scientific community. Eisen and others like him have revolutionized the publishing industry. In their quest for open access, Eisen and others have begun to transition the scientific community from a world in which the role of journals is to select a small number of papers for publication, to a world in which the role of journals is to serve as a guide post through the literature.