‘The horror of closed-access publishing’ according to Jonathan Eisen

Jonathan Eisen is the new Academic Editor-in-Chief of PLoS Biology and wants to build a world in which Open Access and “top tier” can go hand-in-hand:


So I accepted the invitation and became an Academic Editor. But I confess that I was not yet a true convert to OA or to PLoS Biology. So I decided to do what any good scientist should do in such a situation—I planned a publishing experiment. I’d had many papers in Science and Nature before. And so I convinced my collaborators on a high-profile paper to submit it to PLoS Biology, to see how this new high-profile OA journal would compare.

But then, while finalizing the paper, a two-month-long medical nightmare ensued that eventually ended in the stillbirth of my first child. While my wife and I struggled with medical mistakes and negligence, we felt the need to take charge and figure out for ourselves what the right medical care should be. And this is when I experienced the horror of closed-access publishing. For unlike my colleagues at major research universities that have subscriptions to all journals, I worked at a 300-person nonprofit research institute with a small library. So there I was—a scientist and a taxpayer—desperate to read the results of work that I helped pay for and work that might give me more knowledge than possessed by our doctors. And yet either I could not get the papers or I had to pay to read them without knowing if they would be helpful. After we lost our son, I vowed to never publish in non-OA journals if I was in control.

Source: Evolgen: The Eisens Continue to Rock the PLoS

Photo: http://flickr.com/photos/kaythaney/1032678166/

12 thoughts on “‘The horror of closed-access publishing’ according to Jonathan Eisen

  1. So this man is blaming subscription publishing for the stillbirth of his child? Is that his point?

  2. Thanks Myrmecos, I could not have said it any better or more concisely. Here is some additional commentary.

    Whether anything could have been done that would have saved our child, Benjamin Augustin Eisen, is unclear. There were certainly things that could have been better in the medical care my wife and child received. And what was frustrating was our medical care providers simply did not have time or the skills to figure out exactly what to do after they screwed something up. And so like 1000s of other people, we became participants in deciding what to do with the medical care – researching things ourselves. Unfortunately, I could not get access to all the papers that seemed like they could be relevant.

    So I was left with some difficult options —I could spend money just to browse an article to see if it was relevant or I could wait for an author to send me the PDF (I sent out many many emails and googled around to try and find PDFs on author websites). Neither of these were ideal.

    And as Myrmecos says, I became very frustrated with my inability to get access to this literature. If access to the literature has been easier would things have worked out better? I do not know, but certainly, I could have been taking care of my wife as she lay in a hospital bed knowing that our baby was not doing very well and might die and that she (my wife) was also not doing well. Instead I was online and on the phone, trying to find papers and research results that were “closed” access. And without a doubt, I blame this inaccessibility on the journals.

    Jonathan Eisen

  3. Thanks Jonathan, for sharing your thoughts here on this very personal issue. A positive DIY example that came to my mind reading Jonathan’s efforts was Hugh Rienhoff who amplified his daughter’s DNA at home to help doctors figure out her genetic disorder. It was also a Nature cover article.
    http://www.nature.com/news/2007/071017/full/449773a.html (subscription needed)

  4. What a fascinating thread. I don’t want to trivialize the amount of anguish I can only imagine Jonathan must have experienced, scouring the net for data while he should have been able to spend time with his family instead. Small businesses have a analogous problem: I am searching for news and new papers and I find something that looks interesting in the Title or abstract, but is it really worth the download fee? I simply can not afford to subscribe to a litany of journals in the hope that they will help me develop a new product or capture a new market, whilst 95% of the research was paid with my (our) taxes.

    I think there is a niche for “closed” Journals for truly “cutting edge” science conducted by private investors. It’s called the US Patent Office. The rest is just for marketing and name recognition.

  5. Sometimes interesting realizations come out of tragedy. Sometimes all we can do to get over a loss is to crusade. Perhaps this is your way of coping.

    Either way, I agree that there is an ethical responsibility to make information public. Another topic you might be interested in is the ethics of doing research without publishing the results. That is unquestionably worse than simply reserving your research for those who can pay.

    Also, just a heads up to everyone out there, if you do not have access to a university system, google scholar is probably your next best choice. They don’t have access to a lot of the newest and the best articles, but it is a good place to start.

  6. @Yourfootgirl,

    “Either way, I agree that there is an ethical responsibility to make information public.”

    Absolutely, hence the reason why an esteemed colleague and I are writing up a Manu. as part of an ongoing series in this genre.

    Personally, I don’t find Google Scholar that useful in it’s present form.

    Go check PubMed Central though. All content is open access.

  7. The question here is different –

    – Who is producer of the first hand information? – Scientists / researchers.

    – What does the scientists / researchers gets after giving away their research results? – No immediate monetary benefits from the journal (Never from the Journal).

    – Who does the quality control? – Fellow scientists and researchers acting as peer reviewers.

    – What do the peer-reviewers get? Nothing, Not even their names are revealed.

    – Who are the editorial board members? Eminent scientists and researchers. Will get the tag of being on editorial boards or perhaps annual subscription to the journal.

    – Who are the publishers? Not scientists / researchers. Have marketing and distribution skills. Reap all the profits.

    – Who are the readers? Scientists / researchers. Will Consume expensive public resources to do research and produce papers to give away free to publishers.

    This model was necessary before internet era. Publishers had control on distribution channels in the academic publishing and book trade. Do we still need this? Or Open Access is the answer?

  8. While I am deeply sorry about Jonathan’s loss, I frankly find it hard to believe that he would have saved his child by reading scientific literature. Most doctors are very competent people and they will do their best to save a child’s life, which doesn’t always mean trying risky untried strategies published in the last year (most older articles are available through PubMed Central). Incidentally, I have just finished a post on why Open Access may not work out to be viable in the long run. I invite all readers to visit and comment.

  9. Niewiap

    It may be true that most doctor’s are competent but ours were certainly not. Not only did they botch an amniocentesis in a way that triggered all the problems (which I would be more than happy to explain off life), but they lost the results of the amnio, they forgot to give my wife a RhoGam immunization that was needed, and they misdiagnosed the problems claiming that they simply could not have come from the amnio. This was simply the start of their problems. They were so incompetent that they head of the practice formally apologized to us for all of their mistakes and the hospital insisted that nobody form their practice even visit my wife while she was in the hospital for a month or so. And the material I was looking for in PubMed had nothing to do with untried risky strategies published in the last year – it was to find out things like how long after blood exposure one can give a Rhogam shot since our doctors forgot to do it. And no most of the older and recent articles were not available in PMC. So – would having the literature have saved our child. Probably not. But not having the literature pissed me off. And not having it did effect my wife’s health and the risk factor in our future pregnancies due to the Rhogam issue. I get why you think OA is not necessarily a viable model. But I think you are being pretty silly. If our scientists and engineers and others can come up with cures for all sorts of diseases, send people to the moon, create the internet, build all sorts of amazing gadgets, learn about the inner workings of cells, atoms and planets, then certainly we can figure out how to publish research funded by taxpayers in an open manner and still maintain quality. If you think that is impossible, you are grossly underestimating the ingenuity of people.

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