Over the past year the Public Library of Science (PLoS; http://www.publiclibraryofscience.org) undertook an ambitious projects to get publishers to change their policies by public demand. It circulated and open petition on the Internet that had 29,241 signers from 175 countries as of last month. As I reported in the July/August 2001 issue (p.32), the petition sought to initiate a boycott (starting in September 2001) through which singers agrees that they would "publish in, edit or review for, and personally subscribe to, only those scholarly and scientific journals that have agreed to grant unrestricted free distribution rights to any an all original research reports that they have published, through PubMed Central [PMC; http://pubmedcentral.nih.gov] and similar online public resources, within 6 months of their initial publication date."
Now it seems that the petition was more about threatening a boycott than actually waiting to see what a boycott would ultimately do to the journals that failed to comply with the PLoS requirements. Three weeks before it was scheduled to begin, Michael Eisen, a geneticist at the University of California--Berkeley and one of the leaders of the PLoS initiative, speculated in a Nature interview that PLoS might have to turn into a publisher itself due to the lackluster reception its proposal received from the publishing community.
As an experiment to change scholarly communication, PLoS's petition was particularly noteworthy. It was able to generate a large number of signatures despite concerns that some biomedical researchers might be reluctant to offend some of the most powerful journals in the field. It may never be known to what extent the petition signers were acting symbolically in their support or if they were truly prepared to boycott because few journals embraced the PloS requirements. "The range of journals that have met our conditions is not yet sufficient to accommodate all the work that we and our colleagues must publish. Despite our best intentions, it may not always be feasible to publish our work in a journal whose publication practices meet our highest standards," said Patrick O. Brown, a biochemistry professor at the Standford University School of Medicine, and Eisen, both of whom are currently maintaining the PloS site.
To Release, Point, or Pay
While the PLoS initiative generated debate, it didn't move many publishers to change their policies. Most of those that responded to it mildly applauded the spirit of the letter. But most also found flaws either in the economics of the 6-month time frame required by PLoS or they cited worries about PMC as an archiving service. For example, The American Society for Biochemistry responded to PLoS with several concerns, one of which stated: "Inadvertent alteration of the Journal of Biological Chemistry record can easily happen in repeated transfer from one site to another. Those who have experience with commercial research consolidators who republish papers from various journals and sell them at their Web sites understand the problems that republication! redistribution can cause.
The PMC itself has undergone policy changes since the PLoS petition was generated. To satisfy the conditions of the petition, publishers would have to release the full-text contents to PMC or an equivalent service. PMC had required that publishers allow full text to be viewable for free at the PMC site. However, as of March 2001, if a publisher desires, PMC will provide a link to a journal site for full text instead of displaying it in PMC. According to Ed Sequeira of the National Library of Medicine: "The option to provide a link to a journal site for viewing full text was instrumental in the American Society for Microbiology's decision to include its  journals in PMC. Oxford University Press (EMBO Journal and Nucleic Acids Research) has also chosen to go this route, and there are several other journals that have opted for it but are still working on meeting PMC's technical requirements. …