Free Articles Site Opens for Business

In the latest experiment in free access to biomedical research articles, a British publisher is launching a Web site providing peer-reviewed research papers at no cost to authors or readers. BioMed Central has some top scientists as supporters, but even they admit it may be hard to convince researchers to submit their work to unknown, digital-only journals.

BioMed Central, which will open for business at next week's American Society for Microbiology meeting in Los Angeles, is the brainchild of Current Science Group chair Vitek Tracz, who's been talking it up for the past year. The site will publish peer-reviewed primary research in around 40 subjects ranging from biochemistry to urology; it also plans to post preprints eventually. The loosely termed "journals," which are still forming editorial boards, will begin soliciting manuscripts later this month. The attraction for authors: No page charges (at least initially) or cost to readers, and authors will retain copyright. Tracz also promises speedy publication, with articles instantly archived in the National Institutes of Health's (NIH's) PubMed and its new sister full-text repository, PubMed Central. He expects to make money from ads and by charging for material such as news and reviews.

Attracting papers, however, may be tough: "They have to establish enough prestige that a young assistant professor is not risking their career by publishing there," says Steve Hyman, director of the National Institute of Mental Health. Hyman is among several prominent advisers to the project, including Harold Varmus, former NIH director and head of the Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center in New York City, who calls it "an incredibly interesting experiment."

Hyman adds that BioMed Central is not the only game in town, pointing to ventures such as HighWire Press (publisher of Science Online), which recently announced free access to back issues of many journals. "The important thing is to get as much of the literature freely available on the Web as possible," Hyman says. To further the debate, BioMed Central is sponsoring a conference on free access at the New York Academy of Medicine from 6 to 7 July.