Michael Eisen's goal is to change the way scientific findings are disseminated. Most research papers today are locked behind paywalls, and access can cost hundreds of dollars per article. The general public, and most scientists, don't have comprehensive access to the most up-to-date research, even though much of it is funded by U.S. taxpayers.
"It's a completely ridiculous system," says Eisen, an acclaimed biologist at UC Berkeley, an independent candidate for Senate in California running against Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D), and a co-founder of the Public Library of Science, or PLOS, which publishes some of the largest and most prestigious academic journals in the world. These publications stand out for another reason: They're open access, meaning that anyone with an internet connection can read them for free.
PLOS seeks to break up the academic publishing cartel, and it's a leading force in the so-called open science movement, which aims to give the public access to cutting-edge research and democratize scientific progress. This movement became widely publicized after famed hacker and Reddit co-founder Aaron Swartz sought to upend the publishing system by uploading millions of articles for free; he was prosecuted relentlessly, and ultimately committed suicide in 2013.
Eisen first thought he could simply convince his fellow scientists to start uploading their work, but that didn't work because universities and funding agencies use journals as a proxy for quality. They base tenure and award decisions in large part on how many articles a researcher publishes, and on the reputations of the publishers.
To encourage a switch in researchers' thinking, PLOS's first journal, PLOS Biology, attempted to emulate what Eisen describes as the "snooty" journals such as Science and Nature, which generate prestige in part by rejecting most submitted papers. PLOS Biology became well regarded and provided a proof of concept for PLOS's model, in which funding agencies or universities pay a flat fee up front (typically $1,500, but adjusted based on ability to pay) that's then made accessible for free.
The multidisciplinary journal PLOS ONE, created in 2006, used this same model to become the largest academic publication in the world, though it's been surpassed by other open access sources. PLOS ONE puts papers through a fairly typical peer review process, but it doesn't ask editors to determine a paper's importance; the journal will publish any study that follows sound science and reports its data. According to Eisen, this model encourages more thorough experiments, rather than flashy results that aren't reproducible, and allows readers to determine whether a particular study is important and valid.
Reason spoke with Eisen at the BioHack the Planet Conference in Oakland, a gathering for DIY scientists known as biohackers who eschew traditional research institutions. They often carry out experiments in garage labs and share their raw findings on the internet in real time, a publishing model to which Eisen believes all scientists should aspire.
Eisen also discussed why scientists and universities continue to prop up the academic publishing monopoly, how scientific progress suffers from the current regime, why he's running for senate as an independent, why he beleives political parties are obsolete, and the way forward for the open science movement.
This is a rush transcript. Check all quotes against the audio for accuracy.
Michael Eisen: Labs get hundreds of thousands or millions of dollars that come in from the public. After they write up what they've discovered, if you're a member of the public and you want to get access to it, you quite often have to pay again to get access to it.
So, it's a completely ridiculous system. When the internet was invented, that should have allowed scientists to share their work completely freely with the world.
Monticello: What are the consequences for it being so expensive for the average person to access this research?
Michael Eisen: They can't get access to it if they need it for their health, they can't get access to it if it's important for their job. If you're a student at Harvard you can get access to everything, but if you're a student at a community college or a smaller university, or you're in high school, or you're just curious about something that you read about, you can't get access to the primary literature on that topic.