The Journal of Cell Biology makes content available for free after six months; Calls for a modification of boycott effort

March 21, 2001

The Journal of Cell Biology (JCB), a research journal published by the non-profit Rockefeller University Press, announced today that it has made its content available for free on its web site (www.jcb.org) after six months. This meets the primary demand of a group of biologists who are seeking greater public access to published research. These scientists are proposing a boycott of any journals that do not make their content available for free after six months (see www.publiclibraryofscience.org, and the article by Roberts et al. in the March 23 issue of Science magazine).

The JCB will not, however, release the content for posting by other web servers, which is the second demand made by these scientists. In a letter submitted to Science magazine, JCB Editor-in-Chief Ira Mellman (Yale University, New Haven, CT) explains this response, arguing that such a modification of the boycott will result in huge cost savings and greater integrity in the published content, while achieving all the important goals of the boycott effort.
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The text of Mellman's letter follows:

Roberts et al. and the editors of Science both raise excellent points in their discussion of a proposed online archive of published science (23 March, p xxx). As the Editor-in-Chief of the Journal of Cell Biology (JCB), I find myself agreeing with much of what they both have to say. Like all of the other academic scientist-editors responsible for running the JCB, I am deeply and sincerely commited to enhancing the free exchange of scientific information. As a result, the JCB has enthusiastically agreed to make all of our back content free after 6 months. While the material will remain on our servers, it will be posted without any password or entrance controls.

If other publishers took similar steps, by far the most important goal of Roberts et al. could be realized, and without the unavoidable risks that would come with release of material to other servers. We believe strongly that the interests of our authors, readers, and the community at large will be best served by this approach. Efforts would not be duplicated needlessly and the quality of posted material would not be endangered.

Roberts et al. claim that making existing electronic content available on other servers would be "natural and simple." For those of us involved in the day-to-day practicalities of scientific publishing, we know that the process is anything but simple. The electronic posting and decoding of scientific text involves complex parsers that are custom-made for each journal. Every time a new symbol is used in a journal, the symbol, often a hand-drawn graphic, must be sent to and correctly tagged by each server host. Frequent physical interventions are required to correct errors. Thus, hosting content with one or two additional providers would double or triple this workload. Failures in this process would be irritatingly apparent, especially if this task is left to the internet providers. Biologists may tolerate a certain number of errors (e.g., disappearing statistics symbols), but when mg turns to mg in a medical paper there is real cause for concern. The same considerations apply to the reproduction of complex digital images; here, most biologists are less forgiving.

Fortunately it is not necessary to risk such a loss of quality control, because duplicating content on PubMedCentral (PMC) is quite simply unnecessary. Roberts et al. assert that only a single comprehensive collection can be "efficiently indexed, searched and linked to" [sic]. This, however, would be akin to AltaVista claiming that they can only index a web site if the complete content of that site is sent to them and hosted on their server. Clearly, this is not the case. The ability to search across thousands of servers, as long as those servers do not have access controls, is the very reason that the web is such a powerful tool. I believe that centralization of information is an outmoded concept. Linking directly from PubMed abstracts to the full text of JCB articles is already available, and is a technology that we wish that other journals would adopt.

Roberts et al. argue that a central repository is necessary for full-text searching. Setting aside the issue of whether full text searching is of any real use except perhaps to those interested in semiotics, this assertion is also incorrect. PubMed is already at work on methods for full-text searching of articles on other servers, and this feature is likely to be available soon.

If PMC abandons its attempts to duplicate the highly competent archiving efforts of entities such as the non-profit journal site HighWire Press (HWP), they will have funds to help develop such cross-server search capabilities, and to fund efforts to electronically archive older material that as yet has no electronic presence. I find it difficult to justify spending public funds that might otherwise be available for research and training to underwrite an effort to provide what already exists, especially when what already exists has proved to be immensely successful.

The JCB is published by two non-profit entities (Rockefeller University Press on the editorial side with the assistance of HWP on the electronic side) and is run by practicing scientists, and still we have serious reservations about the Roberts et al. proposal, as outlined above. We believe, however, that a great deal of good can come from it if its supporters will abandon the idea of duplicative and error-prone release of content to multiple servers. Instead, Roberts and colleagues should focus their efforts on ensuring that all journals, both non-profit and commercial, make their content freely available to those of us who have produced the work in the first place.

Journal of Experimental Medicine

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