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Teenage Mutant Ninja Journal! Celebrating an Open Access Birthday

Cartoon Teenage Mutant Ninja Journal“The world of medical journals needs a fresh infusion of idealism.”

And with those words from PLOS founders, Mike Eisen, Pat Brown, and Harold Varmus, the first issue of PLOS Medicine launched 10 years ago today.

Its “mutant” superpower was being open access. Then – as now – it was bold, idealistic, and an active advocate for open science.

The year before, when PLOS had just arrived, Richard Horton, the editor of The Lancet, wrote:

“An historic realignment of power is beginning to take place in scientific and medical journal publishing. Nobody is certain about the final outcome.”

If PLOS Medicine had crashed and burned, it would have been a major setback to open access in medicine. Instead, the upstart startup became one of the world’s most influential medical journals. And now it’s a teenager. Aw – they grow so quickly, don’t they?

To get my interests clear early: I’m an academic editor of PLOS Medicine these days. But I wasn’t involved in its establishment.

Photo of Fort Mason Firehouse
The PLOS Medicine Symposium, Firehouse at Fort Mason Center, 17 October 2014

I was among the friends of PLOS, though, who celebrated the birthday a couple of days ago in San Francisco (as a guest of PLOS and one of the keynote speakers). Alcatraz in view seemed a bit like a symbol of closed medicine to me – and a firehouse seemed a fitting place to celebrate in, too.

Current editor, Larry Peiperl, talked about how vital open access is in medicine – where information is so vital for both clinicians and patients alike, but the commercial interests in medical publishing are more powerful than other areas of science: “Open access in medicine isn’t just a rosy ideal. It’s a high stakes enterprise.”

One of the founding co-editors, Ginny Barbour, talked about the close relationship that quickly grew between the fledgling open access journal and the HIV/AIDS community. For them, the stakes for global access to information couldn’t have been higher. Barbour paid tribute to recently lost Joep Lange, one of the authors of a trial for antiretrovirals published in the journal’s inaugural issue.

Nothing could underscore the importance of open access more. It’s the eve of international Open Access Week here in California. And so many in the world are worried about another virus. However, along with much of the medical literature on Ebola, as Jonathan Eisen recently wrote, so too is much of the literature on HIV, TB, and malaria still locked behind paywalls.

Before the internet, and before full open access publishers like PLOS arrived, there was no viable alternative. Now, open access is gaining serious momentum. Certainly in medicine, it’s a moral imperative that it move faster.


Like many, I’ve committed to only publishing open access – and only peer reviewing for fully open access journals. That’s easy for me, though. If it’s not for you, read from early career researcher, Erin McKiernan, in The Guardian recently: “We spend years teaching our children to share. Yet from the moment students enter academia, we discourage it…..”

Open Access Button LogoA new version of the Open Access Button is being launched this week – follow them on Twitter @OA_Button.


Disclosures: I’m an academic editor for PLOS Medicine, and a member of the Human Research Ethics Advisory Group for PLOS One. I attended the PLOS Medicine 10th Anniversary in my private time, with travel support from PLOS. (I spoke on post-publication evaluation – a write-up is “in press.”)

The cartoon is my own (Creative Commons License): more at Statistically Funny. I took the photo of the Fort Mason Firehouse.

* The thoughts Hilda Bastian expresses here at Absolutely Maybe are personal, and do not necessarily reflect the views of the National Institutes of Health or the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

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