[Random-bits] Freedom Fighter - Harold Varmus
Sun Nov 2 11:21:00 2003
"It must have been amazing news for Harold Varmus. More than 500,000
hits on 13 October had crashed the servers as people rushed to log on to
the debut issue of the pioneering science journal he had helped create.
The furore caused by the journal shows no signs of going away. Luckily,
Varmus is used to the heat: as head of the National Institutes of
Health, it went with the territory. But what made him, now in another
high-profile job, sign up for this particular controversy? Kurt Kleiner
Meet the people shaping the future of science
This interview was first published in New Scientist print edition,
Freedom Fighter - Harold Varmus
Interviewed by Kurt Kleiner
You are in the middle of a distinguished career, and the system has
treated you well, so you don't seem a natural for an idea like this. Why
does it strike such a chord?
Because publication is the heart of the scientific effort. Nothing glues
us together as a community more than publishing. That's what people work
for. It's the moment of revelation and potential embarrassment. You are
showing your data and your conclusions and your way of thinking and the
heart of your life's work to your critical and competitive colleagues.
So it's a big moment in everyone's life.
But why open-access publishing? And when did the idea hit you?
I was converted by Pat Brown. Pat is a biochemist at Stanford and had
done a presentation in his own lab on the work of a guy named Paul
Ginsparg, one of the founders of the open-access movement. He set up a
website [now developed into the arxiv.org site] that published physics
preprints, and many of these articles eventually got published in
conventional journals. But the preprints were all online and free
access. That movement began a revolution. I was then the director of the
National Institutes of Health and I realised there was incredible
potential to do something in the biological sciences that would be
really, deeply important, not just for the advancement of science but
for providing information that the public really wanted to know. I have
a special interest in advancing science in poor countries, and this was
obviously an important way to do that. Open-access publishing requires
no subscriptions to use the digital version, allows any use of the
material as long as attribution is maintained, and involves placing the
material in a public digital database that can be rigorously searched.
Many of us are doing so-called high-throughput analysis that generates
much more data than we ever interpret. Allowing others to mine that data
for new observations is incredibly important and exciting. So I thought
about this for a while and then wrote a manifesto called E-Biomed.
What happened next?
That was an interesting moment. I must have known that I was not going
to be at NIH for much longer, because this caused a tremendous political
argument: what the hell was I doing trying to destroy the publication
industry? And actually I went too far. Politically I was na´ve to
describe the full vision rather than proceed one step at a time. People
in Congress who had been, and who still are, my friends wanted me to
defend what I was doing because they were being told by the lobbyists of
the publishing houses that I was out to destroy the capitalist economy,
so I think I would have done that differently. But it definitely got
people's attention. I revised the manifesto and tried to make it more
targeted, and by the end of the year we had PubMedCentral up and running.
So what is PubMedCentral?
It was a first step in what we hoped would become a digital repository
of all the works in biomedical science. Though ideally those full texts
would be deposited at the time of publication, or even before
publication, we realised that for most journals this was not an option.
They would only provide content after a delay of anywhere from two
months to a year, if at all. But even faced with good evidence that you
are not going to harm the personal subscriber base if you delay
deposition for six months to a year, many journals were unwilling to
take the step. Frustrated by the slow progress, we decided we would try
to generate interest in the scientific community, saying: "We're not
going to submit our papers, provide reviewing, or do editing for
journals that don't provide their content to an open-access repository
And when the due date came around, what happened?
It was clear that not as many journals as we would have liked had gone
over to the PubMedCentral model. That's when we realised we needed to do
something a little more ambitious. One of the things we were interested
in doing was creating journals that did it right. So three of us got
together: Pat Brown, Mike Eisen [an evolutionary biologist at Berkeley]
and myself. We were the founders, more or less. We decided we would
write a prospectus and shop it around. And we finally got lucky with the
Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation, who were very responsive and gave us
around $9 million, which we used to hire extraordinary people.
But why bother? What's wrong with the established scientific publishing
Well, it doesn't live up to the opportunities that are created by the
internet. The system as it exists has produced many good journals, but
journals are expensive and increasingly people are reading and searching
online. There's an opportunity here to eliminate boundaries between the
individual and the information, and between pieces of information. I
think all of us were startled by the incredible power that the internet
provided for looking at and working with the genome. If we had published
pieces of genomes paper by paper we would be much less far along than we
are. That model has been a powerful force in helping people to think
about how the scientific literature can be worked with. An important
issue is having widespread searching through a public library. That's
why we use Public Library of Science, PloS, as our name. We strongly
believe in this concept to go to one place and look at everything. But
the issues are many. Most of us who are of a certain age grew up at a
time when there was essentially no science in the developing world
because there was very little access to information. One of my prime
motivations is simply getting the information that governments and other
philanthropic organisations have paid for into the hands of the people
who have a vital interest in seeing it.
I can already buy scientific articles online. The access is there...
But is the access really there? You may say you'll pay for them, but it
adds up pretty quickly. Imagine you are a doctor and have encountered a
patient with an unusual disease, or a high-school student trying to
write a paper. You could identify quite a number of papers you'd be
interested in looking at. But until you look at them you don't really
know whether you want to read them. The prospect of paying several
hundred dollars to identify what you want to read is usually not very
appealing . Don't you ask yourself when you do that, why should I be
paying for this when most of this research was done with money I
provided to the US government as a taxpayer?
What about those who say you are just shifting costs from library
budgets to research budgets? You are now asking researchers to pay to
publish their articles...
But that's fine. People criticise the business plan of open-access
publishers because it involves authors - and that means usually the
funding agencies the authors use - paying a fee upfront of $1000 or
$1500. They say that is a new expense. But it's not. The
organisations--the funding agencies and research organisations - paying
those costs will not change. It's the way the payment is done that's
changing, and the total costs will certainly go down. The research
environment has been sustaining the publishing industry for years.
That's not a bad thing. Publishing is crucial to research. In fact, one
of the things we are trying to get across loud and clear is that
publishing has to be considered part of the cost of doing research.
So have you got the cost basis right?
People legitimately argue about whether we have figured the best way to
do this. We probably haven't gotten all the details quite right yet. We
wanted to show how we thought it ought to be done by producing a journal
that tested some of the principles of open-access publishing, including
the business model, and attempted to make an open-access journal that
was considered to be prestigious. This is an important point, because
when you begin to study the culture of the scientific community you find
that people are very, very sensitive to the place in the hierarchy
accorded to the journals. So if you want a job at Harvard or
Sloan-Kettering or other places, all too often it's the perception, and
probably the reality, that publishing in only three or four of the
several thousand journals of biomedical sciences - The New England
Journal of Medicine, Nature, Science, Cell, a couple of others - is
virtually a requirement for hiring. Many of the first open-access
journals published didn't have that kind of cultural credibility. We
think we can achieve that for PLoS Biology by virtue of the rigorous
review we are doing, the high quality of people associated with the
journal, and our efforts to make it a journal of distinction.
Is there an inherent difference between science publishing and
publishing per se?
Sure. All of us who do science for a living make an incredible effort to
ensure that the scientific publishing industry works well. We provide
our papers for free, and our tradition is to assign copyright to the
journals, which was a huge mistake, in my view. We do editing,
reviewing, and we provide these services which in journalism or book
publishing would be work for which you would be compensated quite
nicely. We all think of this as our civic duty. What most people don't
realise is that when they do this for a for-profit publisher they are
actually filling the stockholders' pockets.
I talked to someone at Science, and he said: "We wish them luck, we're
also a scientific society, but we can't afford to experiment. Our
journal finances all our good works, and I'm not sure that what they
[PLoS] are doing is actually going to be sustainable"...
Sounds like Alan Leshner [Science's executive publisher]
Alan's a good friend of mine. We had dinner a few weeks ago and talked
about all of this. I think that position is highly flawed for the
following reasons. First, Science is actually a very special case. I buy
it and I'm glad to get it every week because it's my weekly New York
Times for science. It's the product of hard-working journalists who are
doing science journalism, writing the book reviews and obituaries and
editorials and many reviews and, most importantly for me, political news
about science. So it is exceptional.
OK, so what about other journals?
Almost all scientific societies publish journals, which are usually very
good. My own very strongly held opinion is that scientific societies are
like guilds, they're like unions. They should serve the members, and
when they don't there's no reason to keep them going. Most societies
provide meetings, workshops, educational programmes, and these
activities should be encouraged. On the other hand, I don't believe that
traditional business plans that depend upon the sale - the inappropriate
sale from my point of view - of subscriptions to these journals should
be how these societies finance their activities. To best serve their
members they are simply going to have to adapt to the opportunities for
much more efficient and useful publications of science by the internet.
Do you want to show Nature and Science and everybody else that this is a
better way? Do you want to drive them out of business?
No, no, we're not trying to put people out of business. The ideal
solution from our point of view is to see journals convert to an
But you tried your petition and you didn't really convince these guys...
The petition was not useless. First of all it brought the open-access
movement further along. Over 30,000 people signed. That's not to be
ignored. And a lot of journals did sign up. We were hoping for a
thousand journals and we ended up with about a hundred, and more are
But you've drawn attention to the issue, and they haven't come around yet...
We're really working on several different issues at once. One big issue
is the journals themselves. The private publishers are unlikely ever to
like this, let's face it. I don't know yet what they are going to do. I
think they could become open access. It's conceivable that a private
publisher could be very successful by charging, say, $4000 an article
instead of $1000. It's possible that journals will find other ways to
raise money in open-access format. But in general I think you are going
to find that the private, for-profit publishers are not going to like
this because the kind of profit margins they've had, exceeding 40 per
cent - much higher than that in some cases - simply aren't going to be
tenable in the long run.
Is it eventually going to be pressure that brings them around?
Yes, I think it would be. But our real target is the society journals.
Those are the journals we think should move in the direction of open
access. And the way I'd like to see that happen is by having the other
journals say: "Look, PLoS journals are getting the best articles because
people see that not only do they do an incredible job in the editing and
the promulgation, but it's better to be published in a form that allows
everybody to see it instantaneously." And if we, BioMedCentral and other
open access journals attract the best articles and most of the articles,
the other journals will have to come around because otherwise they won't
get submissions anymore.