When Manuel Llinás was nearing the end of his postdoc at UCSF in 2002, he had a body of research that culminated in an impactful paper on the genome of the malaria parasite, Plasmodium falciparum. The paper was very attractive to a number of subscription journals. At the time, open access options were not readily available, but he chose to publish in the first issue of a yet unknown open access journal, PLoS Biology. He discussed his decision to make the leap into the frontiers of open access.
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Manuel: It’s all about the big picture. For people like me who work in areas that are associated with global infectious diseases – my research is all on malaria; I’ve been working on malaria for over 15 years now – you can imagine that many of the people who work in this area, who do research in it, especially in the field, are in places like Sub-Saharan Africa, Southeast Asia, South and Central America. The places where this disease is endemic are highly impoverished parts of the world, and there is serious research going on and they don’t have access to the fancy journals. Giving them the ability to access our data is actually quite empowering to them. Secondly, depending on the type of data that you’re generating, many of these places do a lot of computational-type research, and making both the data and preliminary interpretations of the data available through open access-style journals is what facilitates their ability to actually use it in order to build on it to design future experiments.
How did you go about finding someone to publish this paper open access?
Manuel: At the time there were occasional articles that journals would consider publishing as open access, and we had actually approached several high-profile journals for adding this as a stipulation for publishing our work. We knew this model was sometimes available for things deemed of relative importance to large numbers of people, especially in areas that may not have access to the work that was being reported. This was often happening with genome sequencing and things of that sort. At the time it was a big deal whenever a new genome was released to the public.
What was the open access publishing experience like for you back in 2003?
Manuel: The reason that this work was ultimately published in the first issue of PLoS Biology was because other journals that had been interested in the manuscript, that had actually reviewed and accepted the manuscript, informed us that they would not publish it in an open access mode. We actually asked for our manuscript to be returned to us and not to be published and moved it to PLoS Biology, which we heard was soliciting content for its first issue. The review process was fantastic at PLoS. It was fast, and it had this added bonus that it would ultimately be in an open access-type journal. The downside, of course, was that PLoS Biology was an unknown entity to anyone at that point in time.
Did pioneering in open access have an effect on your career?
Manuel: In the long run this became the one major output from my postdoctoral work, and what I had to demonstrate out on the job market when trying to find a faculty position. It became a talking point everywhere that I had an interview. People wanted to know why we would publish it in a journal that had no track record, no history, and that nobody really knew much about. It not only opened a lot of interesting conversations, but was also a way to disseminate information about how this journal was trying to do something different. This was at a time before it was even becoming a requirement to put things into the public forum as a mandatory aspect of all publishing associated with government-funded grants in the United States.
Since this experience, do you lean towards publishing open access?
Manuel: There’s no doubt that, when I have the choice, I publish in open access journals. This has been a moving window because early on, there were almost no open access journals. Now there are many open access journals, and many models for open access, including journals that are totally open access to journals that will offer it at a cost. I think we’re in a situation now that you can sort of choose where to send your work depending on how quickly you would like it to be disseminated into the open access arena because fortunately, almost all journals these days will eventually allow their articles to be available to the general public.It’s just a matter of how long it is embargoed from public release. But in that, coupled with what has gone on through PubMed Central to make essentially all articles funded by NIH dollars or other science funding publicly available, now it’s much easier to allow people to gain access to it.
Would you advise others to publish open access?
Manuel: When there’s money involved, I think it’s hard to push people necessarily in that direction because fortunately, we live in a time now – and it’s happened really quickly, which is quite amazing – that most things will be publicly disseminated prior to there really being a need to pay for it up front. So many things are changing, including the fact that a lot of people are now putting things on bioRxiv, for example, while they’re being reviewed at another journal. And bioRxiv is open access. Anybody can see it. It may not be the exact final version that’s going to be in print, but you’ve already disseminated the information, the knowledge, and the data that’s in that article to a very, very wide audience with the click of a button.
Manuel Llinás is a Professor of Biochemistry and Molecular Biology at The Pennsylvania State University. Read his latest publications with Springer Nature in Scientific Reports and Nature Communications.