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Experimental biophysicist Steven Koch at the University of New Mexico also uses OWW, but only about 25 percent of his work is publicly available there. Although highly in favor of the OWW mission, he sees it as a work in progress and therefore not something on which he is willing to share so much information that he'd be risking his career. “Maybe tenure will allow me to,” he says. MIT biology professor Michael Laub isn't so sure either. “Somebody may have discovered some interesting gene and doesn't want to blab to the whole world about why it's interesting,” he recently told The Boston Globe in a story about OWW. “I don't want my grad students to be scooped by someone else.”
To those fearful of exposing their experiments to competing researchers, Endy has a simple response: No one can steal what is already public and credited on the OWW site with a time stamp. In addition, unlike Wikipedia, no anonymous edits are allowed. If a member makes a change, he or she is identified and has a responsibility to the community, Endy says.
Nevertheless, OpenWetWare is still well ahead of the scientific culture curve. “We're a multistage rocket that has only gone through stage one,” he acknowledges. By the end of this year, however, Endy would like to see more projects fully represented, from initial brainstorm to conclusion. In that spirit, at his new lab at Stanford, he plans to let it all hang out on OWW.
Meanwhile, a realignment in academic publishing is borrowing some of the strengths of blogs and OWW and aiming for more interaction around each paper in a journal.
In April 2003, a group of leading American scientists, research funders, publishers, and librarians met at HHMI headquarters in Chevy Chase, Maryland, to discuss the future of biomedical information. The landscape was already changing, they concluded. Increasingly “out” was the traditional closed model of medical publishing controlled by a small list of rarified and expensive print journals. “In,” or at least holding great promise, was a new concept called open-access publishing, which aimed to blast a hole in the status quo by making scientific studies free online to all readers.
Traditionally, print journals have been gatekeepers regarding access to new scientific information. While they usually serve their specific specialty readers quite well, the resulting stovepiping of information leaves researchers in related fields largely unaware of the new ideas and advances presented in particular journals. That makes no sense to HHMI investigator Patrick O. Brown, a biochemistry researcher at Stanford University.
In 1998, Brown began discussing the open-access concept with Harold Varmus, then director of the National Institutes of Health (NIH), and Eisen, then a postdoc in Brown's lab. Their idea culminated in the launch of the online Public Library of Science (PLoS) in 2001. The free peer-reviewed site reads like a traditional academic journal, but there are two fundamental differences: the papers' authors pay $1,300 to $2,850 for publication, and they relinquish all publishing and distribution rights to the public as long as the work is properly cited.