Public Library of Science

We’ve had a lot of discussion of open access to scientific journals here, so I wanted to point out the Public Library of Science, a collection of open-access but peer-reviewed journals in biology and medicine that began in 2003. It’s an interesting test case, because there’s a lot more money at stake in medicine than in mathematics or physics. PLoS finances their publications through author fees in the 2000 dollar range.

12 thoughts on “Public Library of Science

  1. Don’t forget the forthcoming PhysMath Central will also be offering a tailored, peer-reviewed, open access publishing platform for physicists and mathematicians – although our publication fees will not be as high as PLoS. This is an extension of the successful BioMed Central service for biomedical journals.


  2. To me, author fees smack of vanity presses. Are these publications of positive value or not? If they are, let the consumer, not the producer, pay; If they’re not, why bother publishing them at all?

  3. >> Are these publications of positive value or not?

    Well, that is up to the scientific community to decide. Both PLoS and BioMed Central have stringent peer-review stages to pass before acceptance and both seem to have higher than average impact factors, so the answer would seem to be ‘yes’.

  4. So if these articles are of positive value, why make the producers of these articles pay rather than the consumers? Maybe I’ll start charging the neighborhood kids for the privilege of mowing my lawn.

  5. The difference between vanity presses and academic presses is small indeed. (Academia is at least a kind of collective vanity.) Author fees are common in fields with a lot of grant money. The reason being is that the certification process of appearing in a prestigious journal is of positive value to the author as well as the readers. If neighborhood kids could get tenure by mowing your lawn, they’d be out there right now, gratis.

  6. Chris Leonard: This is the first I’ve heard about PhysMathCentral, and there’s not much detail on your website. What do you have planned?

  7. Walt writes: “If neighborhood kids could get tenure by mowing your lawn, they’d be out there right now, gratis.

    You must live in a different sort of neighborhood than I do. And that you can force someone to do absurd things by holding a threat like denial of tenure over their heads doesn’t make the practice any less absurd. If academics are truly producing something of value, why can’t the market recognize that instead of fining them for being productive? I don’t and won’t pay page charges, and I spend a lot of my own money buying access to work that others have produced. To me that makes a lot more sense than the alternative, but YMMV.

  8. Of course, it will rarely be the actual authors themselves you will pay for publication. Most academic authors will use their research grants to pay these fees, so it will be the long-suffering, general public whose taxes pay for research grants, who will ultimately pay the fees. This does seem grossly unfair. If the research is actually of value to somebody, then that somebody should pay for publication, not the general public. If the research upon which the publications are based is paid-for by research grants arising from public taxation, then surely the results should be published in the free-to-read and free-to-write public domain.

  9. One purpose of Open Access science is that one can do postmodernist “mashups” of the data in them, for purposes akin to mowing lawns for tenure.

    For example:

    Dark Bands in the Human Spectrum
    Jonathan Vos Post
    Computer Futures, Inc.
    draft 2.0 of 2 Feb 2007, 27 pp., expands 1.0 of 1 Feb 2007

    What is the human body made of? An odd way to answer this is with the inverse question: What is the human body NOT made of? I can give an answer in the following sense: for what natural numbers (i.e. positive integers) is there no ion or molecule found
    in significant quantities in a human being, which has that number as the average atomic or molecular weight, rounded down?

    Humans have lots of water, and thus lots of hydrogen atoms and hydrogen ions, both of whose molecular weights (1.00783) round down to the integer 1. Heavy water (deuterium oxide) has already been figured in by our using an average molecular weight, which this considers both protium (hydrogen with no neutron) and deuterium (hydrogen with a neutron, molecular weight averaged down to 2). There is not going to be a measurable amount of radioactive tritium (hydrogen with two neutrons) whose atomic weight rounds down to 3.

    The human body has essentially no helium (atomic weight rounded down to 3 for the rare light isotope, rounded down to 4 for the common isotope). The human body, assuming this is not a person taking lithium as treatment for depression, has nothing of molecular weight 5, 6, or 7. Beryllium is rare, and a poison. So there is a gap in the average molecular weight mass spectrum of a human which is covered by the integers 2 through 10. There should be no atomic carbon in a human body, not counting gunshot residue or charcoal from grilling or sketching, hence no 12 or 13. Carbon is in humans, but bound up in organic molecules.

    In summary, the integers representing mass gaps in the human spectrum include:
    2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, 12, 13, 14, 15, 19, 20, 21, 24, 25, 36, 37, 40, 41, 42, 49, 52, 53, 56, 64, 66, 69, 70, 82, 91, 95, 98, 99, 107.

    We’ll look higher, but these “dark bands” will become rare. There are no more such dark bands through 150…

    Source of data: the Human Metabolome Data Base

    We may also take this as the human biochemistry analogue to the [OEIS] Online Encyclopedia of Integer Sequences entry whose database is the periodic table,
    “A070217 Numbers not represented by a known atomic weight.”

    On 1/31/07, Jonathan Post wrote:
    Sorted (by hand) by molecular weight

    HMDB02106 1.00783 Hydrogen ion
    HMDB01362 1.00783 Hydrogen
    HMDB02386 11.00930 Boron
    HMDB02714 16.03130 Methane
    HMDB01039 17.00274 Hydroxide
    HMDB00051 17.02655 Ammonia
    HMDB02111 18.01060 Water
    HMDB00662 18.99840 Fluorine
    HMDB00588 22.98980 Sodium
    HMDB00547 23.98504 Magnesium
    HMDB02084 26.00307 Cyanide
    HMDB02175 27.97690 Silicon
    HMDB01361 27.99490 Carbon
    HMDB01371 28.00610 Nitrogen
    HMDB03378 29.99799 Nitric oxide
    HMDB01426 30.01056 Formaldehyde
    HMDB01315 30.97380 Phosphorus
    HMDB00164 31.04220 Methylamine
    HMDB02983 31.04220 Methylamine Hydrochloride
    HMDB00598 31.97210 Sulfur
    HMDB01377 31.98980 Oxygen
    HMDB02168 31.98983 Superoxide
    HMDB01875 32.02621 Methanol
    HMDB03338 33.02150 Hydroxylamine
    HMDB00983 33.98770 Hydrogen Sulfide
    HMDB00492 34.96885 Chlorine
    HMDB02162 35.97670 Hydrochloric acid
    HMDB02306 35.97670 Hydrochloric acid
    HMDB00586 38.96371 Potassium
    HMDB00464 39.96260 Calcium
    HMDB02078 43.00580 Cyanate
    HMDB01967 43.98980 Carbon Dioxide
    HMDB00990 44.02621 Acetaldehyde
    HMDB01536 45.02146 Formamide
    HMDB00087 45.05785 Dimethylamine
    HMDB00142 46.00548 Formic acid
    HMDB00108 46.04186 Ethanol
    HMDB01382 47.00070 Nitrite
    HMDB03227 48.00337 Methanethiol
    HMDB02503 50.94400 Vanadium
    HMDB01050 50.96377 Hypochlorite
    HMDB00599 51.94050 Chromium
    HMDB01333 54.93800 Manganese
    HMDB00692 55.93490 Iron
    HMDB02457 57.93530 Nickel
    HMDB01659 58.04186 Acetone
    HMDB03366 58.04190 Propanal
    HMDB00608 58.93320 Cobalt
    HMDB01842 59.04835 Guanidine
    HMDB01869 59.03710 Acetamide
    HMDB03656 59.03710 Acetaldehyde oxime
    HMDB00906 59.07350 Trimethylamine
    HMDB03551 60.00855 Carbamate
    HMDB03344 60.02110 Glycolaldehyde
    HMDB00042 60.02113 Acetic acid
    HMDB00294 60.03236 Urea
    HMDB00820 60.05751 Propyl alcohol
    HMDB00863 60.05751 Isopropyl alcohol
    HMDB00595 60.99257 Hydrogen Carbonate
    HMDB00149 61.05276 Ethanolamine
    HMDB02179 61.98782 Peroxynitrite
    HMDB02878 61.98782 Nitrate
    HMDB03538 62.00040 Carbonic acid
    HMDB02303 62.01902 Dimethylsulfide
    HMDB01887 62.03678 Ethylene glycol
    HMDB00657 62.92960 Copper
    HMDB01853 62.99560 Nitrate
    HMDB01303 63.92910 Zinc
    HMDB03276 65.95979 Hydrogen sulfide
    HMDB02077 67.96650 Chlorite
    HMDB01525 68.03745 Imidazole
    HMDB04101 71.06092 beta-Aminopropionitrile
    HMDB01167 72.02113 Pyruvaldehyde
    HMDB03543 72.05750 Butanal
    HMDB00474 72.05751 Butanone
    HMDB01106 73.05276 3-Aminopropionaldehyde
    HMDB02134 73.05276 Aminoacetone
    HMDB01522 73.06400 Methylguanidine
    HMDB02501 73.92120 Germanium
    HMDB00119 74.00039 Glyoxylic acid
    HMDB00237 74.03678 Propionic acid
    HMDB03052 74.03678 Lactaldehyde
    HMDB03453 74.03680 3-Hydroxypropanal
    HMDB04327 74.07320 1-Butanol
    HMDB00002 74.08440 1,3-Diaminopropane
    HMDB00123 75.03203 Glycine
    HMDB00925 75.06841 Trimethylamine oxide
    HMDB00115 76.01604 Glycolic acid
    HMDB01881 76.05243 1,2-Propanediol
    HMDB02808 76.05243 1,3-Propanediol
    HMDB02991 77.02992 Cysteamine
    HMDB02151 78.01390 Dimethyl sulfoxide
    HMDB01505 78.04695 Benzene
    HMDB02500 78.91834 Bromine
    HMDB00926 79.04220 Pyridine
    HMDB01349 79.91652 Selenium
    HMDB00240 79.95681 Sulfite
    HMDB01033 80.96464 Hydrogen Sulfite
    HMDB03008 81.97246 Bisulfite
    HMDB03929 83.04830 5-Aminoimidazole
    HMDB02036 83.96140 Chloric acid
    HMDB04363 84.03240 Imidazolone
    HMDB02039 85.05276 2-Pyrrolidinone
    HMDB00549 86.03678 4-Deoxytetronic acid
    HMDB02523 86.03678 Oxolan-3-one
    HMDB03407 86.03680 Diacetyl
    HMDB01080 87.06841 4-Aminobutyraldehyde
    HMDB03642 87.90560 Strontium
    HMDB01880 87.97966 Hydrogen Oxalate
    HMDB00243 88.01604 Pyruvic acid
    HMDB00039 88.05243 Butyric acid
    HMDB01873 88.05243 Isobutyric acid
    HMDB03243 88.05243 Acetoin
    HMDB01414 88.10005 Putrescine
    HMDB02435 89.01129 (hydroxyimino)-Acetic acid
    HMDB00056 89.04768 b-Alanine
    HMDB00161 89.04768 L-Alanine
    HMDB00271 89.04768 Sarcosine
    HMDB02329 89.99531 Oxalic acid
    HMDB00190 90.03169 L-Lactic acid
    HMDB00700 90.03169 Hydroxypropionic acid
    HMDB01051 90.03169 Glyceraldehyde
    HMDB01311 90.03169 D-Lactic acid
    HMDB01882 90.03169 Dihydroxyacetone
    HMDB03156 90.06808 2,3-Butanediol
    HMDB03692 90.06810 (S,S)-Butane-2,3-diol
    HMDB00131 92.04734 Glycerol
    HMDB03012 93.05785 Aniline
    HMDB04983 94.00890 Dimethyl sulfone
    HMDB00228 94.04186 Phenol
    HMDB01429 94.95510 Phosphate
    HMDB00979 96.95955 Hydrogen Sulfate
    HMDB00973 96.96907 Hydrogen phosphate
    HMDB02105 96.96907 Dihydrogen Phosphate
    HMDB01302 97.90540 Molybdenum
    HMDB02934 97.96738 Sulfuric acid
    HMDB01448 97.96740 Sulfate

    [truncated here, but you get my drift…]

  10. Chris Grant – the entire point of this exercise is that these publications are of positive value to readers, but the readers have drastically different values for money (depending on whether they’re graduate students or tenured professors, and in the US or a developing country) so a price-based distribution system makes it available to people in a way that doesn’t have all that much correlation to the value it has for people. But just as the publication has positive value, so does the readership. So it also makes sense to charge the author, since she wants as many people as possible to know about her work. If we required a monetary transaction every time someone gained value, then since publishing is a radically non-zero-sum game, we’d just be pouring money into a hole somewhere.

  11. Kenny:

    Have you had any thoughts of broadening your business model beyond the academic community? Maybe start an online retailer ( in which readers for books can be purchased instead of vice versa? That would be something.

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