PLOS and the Surge in Global Momentum for Open Access

Open Access is the new black. PLOS (Public Library of Science) will celebrate the 10th anniversary of its flagship journal, PLOS Biology, this year. Started in 2000 as an organization to advocate for open access (OA), PLOS recognized early on that there needed to be a demonstration that OA publishing could work. There were two key aspects—quality and cost—to consider.

PLOS Biology and PLOS Medicine proved that high-quality publishing with OA was possible. The four community journals— PLOS Genetics, PLOS Pathogens, PLOS Computational Biology, and PLOS NTDs— proved that the model could break even financially and even draw a surplus. As the organization grew, PLOS ONE demonstrated that the entire business model was viable. A cross between quality and scale, PLOS ONE has been financially successful for several years.

PLOS ONE was not instituted to generate revenue. Instead, PLOS’s founders believed that journals were rejecting valid research largely to maintain journal reputation, and that this practice might delay the communication of science. PLOS ONE’s innovative publication criteria mean that they publish all technically sound research regardless of its perceived impact. By accepting any paper that was good science, PLOS ONE hoped to increase the pace of science. And by experimenting with what is so far a sustainable business model, PLOS ONE has inspired others to follow suit with variations on the model.

Today we are seeing a proliferation of OA. On the eve of its 10th anniversary as a publisher, PLOS and other leaders in the OA community welcomed three concurrent announcements1 in July 2012—Research Councils UK, the government response to the Finch report, and the Higher Education Funding Council for England—that established a framework for introducing OA to the UK over a short period, with implementation starting in April 2013. Also in July 2012, the European Commission2 published its own set of documents on OA, giving even greater credence to the belief that OA will become a prevalent mode of dissemination of scientific research and widen the set of accepted publishing models.

PLOS applauds those developments and supports any organization or initiative that seeks to eliminate unnecessary barriers to the immediate availability, access, and use of research. In the United States, OA advocates secured more than 64,000 signatures on a petition3 that urges expanding OA to research funded by all US federal science agencies. Over the last several months, it has become clear that momentum has reached a pivotal juncture: the commitment to OA and signs of transformation are there for all to see, but what exactly do they mean?

PLOS defines OA publishing as making scientific articles immediately and freely available to anyone, anywhere to be downloaded, printed, distributed, read, and reused (including commercially) without restriction as long as the author and the original source are properly attributed according to the Creative Commons Attribution License that is used. The organization believes that only by truly embracing OA in this way and emphasizing reuse will we experience substantial innovation and change real-life outcomes. Such results are exemplified by an article published in PLOS Medicine titled “The Dirty War Index”,4 which provided a global health and human rights tool to measure the brutality of conflict and was adapted for use in NATO military environments to monitor civilian casualties.

Not all OA is equal, however, so PLOS recently launched a campaign to move beyond the question “Is it open access?” to encourage scientists, publishers, and funders to ask “How open is it?” Three OA community partners—PLOS, the Open Access Scholarly Publishers Association (OASPA), and the Scholarly Publishing and Academic Resources Coalition (SPARC)—have recently published the Web resource “HowOpenIsIt?”5 —that helps to clarify the extent to which a publication is open. In this way, authors can evaluate the relative openness of different publishers and decide for themselves where to publish their research.

PLOS’s unique position as a publisher, an OA advocate, and a technology-led innovator allows it to leverage its mission of leading a transformation in research communication. In 2009, PLOS became the first publisher to provide measures of the reach and impact of each article, including downloads, citations, blogs, social media, and bookmarks, which are collectively known as article-level metrics. That launch generated excitement and support in an entire community of scholars who are interested in making the best use of the newly emerging data, for example, how they can be used to help others to decide what to read in the growing body of OA literature, to provide more measures for users to determine the significance of the work, to shift the emphasis from impact at the journal level to an article focus, and to assess the impact of funding sources or analyze the long-term societal value generated by scientists.

It is useful to consider the original motivations of PLOS’s cofounders, Nobel Prize winner Harold Varmus, Patrick Brown, and Michael Eisen. In 2000, they intuitively understood the power of the Internet to revolutionize every aspect of scientific communication, from the slow pace of publishing that was holding back advances in science to the high cost of distribution associated with ink on paper, and the frustration of not being able to read their own work or that of their colleagues without multiple expensive subscriptions. Those factors and the reluctance of traditional publishers to embrace change led to affirmative action.

In October 2000, the founders began informally circulating an open letter that expressed the belief that the scientific literature should be a public resource that is freely distributed by online public services (those ideas evolved to give us the current PubMed Central6). By signing the letter, scientists pledged to support—with their submissions, subscriptions, and voluntary service as editors and reviewers— only journals that placed their published research articles in publicly accessible resources.

In early 2001, the founders published two opinion pieces in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America7 and Science8 that made the case for public availability. Both articles led to large increases in the number of signers of the open letter and triggered responses from established publishers that ranged from lukewarm to hostile. The letter eventually generated more than 64,000 signatures from scientists in 175 countries. Hundreds of leading scientists in every field of biology and medicine committed their support. However, few publishers made substantial moves toward increasing OA.

When it became clear to Varmus, Brown, and Eisen that the established publishers—with their entrenched interests in the subscription system—were not willing to adopt a fundamental change in their business, PLOS acted. “We realized that if we wanted to change how scientific research is published, we would have to do it ourselves,” according to the founders. “Moreover, we felt a responsibility to the supporters of the PLOS initiative to provide the kind of publications that they had pledged to support.”

All PLOS publications directly address preconceptions about OA. Every journal article that PLOS publishes is rigorously peer reviewed; OA publications have demonstrated the same citation rates as subscription journals or higher; and through the charging of publication (instead of subscription) fees paid largely by the funders and institutions that support research grants, it has also been possible to prove that the OA model is sustainable.

It’s a game-changing time for everyone involved in OA: policy makers are bringing about meaningful change in support of OA; publishers are adopting it, and there are now tools to evaluate how open they are; we can digitally measure the impact and reach of research in more ways than ever before. OA has proved not only that can it change outcomes in our daily lives but that it is a sustainable force to be reckoned with in the world. All of us who participate in this vibrant community gratefully acknowledge the authors, readers, reviewers, and editors for all that they have accomplished and for supporting the OA effort. We invite you to join us in the PLOS mission to lead a transformation in scientific communication for the benefit of all.


  1. Research Information Network. Finch report: Report of the working group on expanding access to published research findings – the Finch group.
  2. Europa Press releases RAPID. Top news from the European commission 14 July – 7 September 2012.
  3. PLOS Blogs. Congratulations! 25,000 people strong for open access…and counting!
  4. PLOS Medicine. The dirty war index: a public health and human rights tool for examining and monitoring armed conflict options.
  5. PLOS Open for Discovery. Open access spectrum (OAS).
  6. PMC.
  7. Roberts RJ. PubMed Central: The GenBank of the published literature. Proc Natl Acad Sci USA.
  8. Roberts RJ, Varmus HE, Ashburner M, et al. Science Source: Building a “GenBank” of the published literature. Science 2001:2318–2319.

KRISTEN RATAN is the chief publications and products officer, Public Library of Science, San Francisco, California.