Former NIH director on open access.

Harold Varmus. Illustration by Quickhoney.

Harold Varmus did not become an open access advocate quietly. In 1999, when he was director of the NIH, he published a short paper calling for a radical rethinking of scientific publishing: He proposed making biomedical research papers freely available online. The reaction was not what he’d hoped for. Colleagues, publishers, and others responded with anger, he recalls, saying, “It got me in a lot of trouble.”

Since then, open access has come a long way and has reshaped scientific publishing. Varmus remains one of its driving forces. He is best known within the movement for his role in cofounding the Public Library of Science, which now publishes an array of not-for-profit peer-reviewed journals that offer immediate and free access to content online.

Last year, Varmus upped the ante on open access by launching PLoS ONE, which he describes as an encyclopedic, large-scale publishing device. A paper submitted to PLoS ONE is not subjected to extensive review, but is instead evaluated by a single criterion: Is it good science? Papers that pass this hurdle get posted in online forums where readers can annotate them, comment, or submit related findings. The result, Varmus says, is that data and ideas that might otherwise never see the light of day can be openly debated and discussed. “We think this is very healthy,” he says. This fall, just 13 months after PLoS ONE began taking submissions, it accepted its 1,000th paper for publication. And the original editorial board of 120 people has now grown to nearly 400.

Open access continues to have its critics, but the pendulum is swinging in its favor. This fall, the US Congress passed legislation requiring that papers resulting from NIH-funded research must be made publicly available. And other major funding agencies, including the Canadian Institutes of Health Research, Howard Hughes Medical Institute, and the Wellcome Trust in the UK, have already instituted similar policies.

Varmus — who is a Nobel Laureate and currently serves as the president of the Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center — has helped make open access publishing visible, credible, and even mainstream. “He’s been at the epicenter of the movement since its inception,” says Heather Joseph, executive director of the Scholarly Publishing and Academic Resources Coalition. “He’s got that winning hand of seeing beyond the way things are, into what they might become, backed up by realistic ideas of what it might take to get there.”

Originally published November 15, 2007

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