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Public Library of Science: Open Access Scientific and Medical Research

From the Digital Library Review blog:

The Public Library of Science (PLoS) is a non-profit open access publisher of academic research in science and medicine. But PLoS uses the web to distribute their publications freely, which means they are also a digital library.

PLoS began full operation on October 13, 2003 with their first journal: PLoS Biology. PLoS currently publishes six additional peer reviewed journals for fields including medicine, computational biology, genetics, pathogens, and neglected tropical diseases. Another journal, PLoS ONE, contains multiple research topics. There is also a Hub which collects clinical trial research, and a Hub for biodiversity research will be launched later this year.

PLoS’ mission is to “Open the doors to the world’s library of scientific knowledge by giving any scientist, physician, patient, or student – anywhere in the world – unlimited access to the latest scientific research.” To help readers learn more about the benefits of open access and the PLoS’ mission, a series of one-minute videos featuring the insight of different types users, including Librarian Diana Graves are available (and worth watching!).

Komodo Dragon Stalks Its Pray

To help fund PLoS’ open access paradigm, authors whose research survives PLoS’ rigorous selection process are required to pay for publication (between $1,350 and $2,900 depending on the journal). However, once published on PLOS an author’s work is freely available to anyone in the world with Internet access. (If an author cannot pay the cost of publication, the fee is waived, and most fees are covered by the institution supporting an author’s research). Funding is also provided by memberships, sponsors, and contributions.

The recent outcry by UC librarians over price hikes by Nature Publishing Group underscores the need for alternative publishing methods. While all forms of serious publishing are costly, a form in which the cost is paid once up front (like PLoS’) rather than than over and over again by separate users makes a lot of sense, especially in a field which is international in scope and receives so much public funding to begin with.

5000 Year Old Shoe

Within a PLoS journal, each article comes equipped with its own article-level metrics that allow readers to determine its popularity and reach. Anyone is allowed to create an account on PLoS, and once you have an account you are allowed to write comments and annotate text within an article. You may also respond directly to the comments of other readers. PLoS has successfully created an online environment which allows for scientific discussion and debate around each and every article. Account holders may also rate articles and request a staff review of comments or ratings they believe to be inappropriate. User comments and ratings are not anonymous but link to the writer’s PLoS’ profile from which it’s pretty easy to determine legitimacy. PLoS’ article level metrics also include links for related content: similar articles published by PLoS, links to search results in Google Scholar and PubMed, and links to search results on a number of blog search sites.

Male Mice Sing an Ultrasonic Tune

The structure of scientific articles makes it easy to quickly discern an article’s topic, intent, research methods, and conclusion without having to do much actual reading. PLoS applies hyperlinks to this structure which makes browsing an article even faster.

PLoS provides many paths for readers into their content, including three blogs (PLoS and PLoS ONE Community and PLoS Medicine Community), Twitter feeds, Facebook presence, email alerts, and RSS feeds. The front page of each PLoS journal allows for browsing by recent research, featured discussions, the current issue, all issues (see “journal archive”), publication date, subject, and collection. The biology, medicine, and genetics journals also provide browsing by most viewed. And the biology and medicine journals feature weekly editor picks.

PLoS recently launched a new and improved search engine and search interface. The search box for the new search can be found on the top right hand corner of each journal and hub. The new search interface appears to be busy and complicated, but it allows users to quickly assess available resources and to easily expand or narrow search results. It is clearly intended for an academic audience, but with a little practice a lay user should be able to master it as well. Oddly, the former search engine is still available by clicking “Search” on the navigation bar on the plos.org homepage. The former search provides 2 options: search of all the journals or search only the plos.org homepage and blog. The former search option may look less intimidating to some users but ultimately it is not as powerful. Having two completely separate search engines on the site is confusing: the new search system should completely replace the old one, but the option to search only the homepage and blog is useful and should remain.

Fossil snake preserved within a sauropod dinosaur nesting ground

Almost everything about PLoS appears to be carefully thought out and well executed. However, the homepage does not live up to the rest of what PLoS accomplishes. I knew what PLoS did before I ever visited their homepage, which is a good thing: there is no immediate explanation of what PLoS does and there is nothing that captures my attention or reflects the excitement of the amazing resources they provide. No cool images are displayed above the fold and there is no search box. Many of the individual PLoS journals do a better job of making it immediately clear what they do, providing interesting images, and capturing attention. And they each display a search box. PLoS provides a multitude of amazing resources but they can be confusing to navigate: 7 journals, 1 hub (with another on the way), 3 blogs, and 3 separate types of search plus articles, discussions, and collections can be a lot for a reader to succesfully discover. A well designed homepage could do a lot to help quell confusion.

PLoS is a tremendous public resource and a shining example of what a digital library can accomplish. I am most impressed with the content itself and with the interactive tools PLoS has put in place to allow for discussion and debate around the content–but the value of the interactive tools depends on scientists, educators, and the interested public adopting them and using them well. Of the articles I looked at for this review (granted, only a small sample) many did not have reader comments, notes, or ratings. PLoS is still a new phenomenon and it may take time for people to feel comfortable enough to invest their time and energy online rather than in more traditional forums.

A Window on Maize Evolution

While PLoS already has three blogs which inform readers of changes and upgrades, highlight content, and create community, I think they should consider creating an additional blog aimed at science educators to highlight PLoS content and suggest ways of integrating it into classroom use for high schools and even middle schools. Opening the door to younger science students and getting them involved in reading and understanding scientific research would be a worthy additional goal.

Here’s a small sampling of articles published on PLoS:

PLOS Wrap-up: ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦

Subject Peer-reviewed scientific and medical literature
Scope Articles published starting in 2003, in English
Media Type Text (research articles)
Asset Quantity ♦ ♦           Close to 18,000 articles and growing
Asset Quality ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦   All articles are reviewed by scientific peers
Asset Presentation Tools ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦   Each article comes with interactive tools for reader comments, notes, and ratings
Asset Reusability ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦   All articles available for reuse under Creative Commons Attribution License
Metadata Quality ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦   Publication level metadata is provided for each article
Browsing Options ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦   Multiple browsing options are provided for each PLoS journal
Search functionality ♦ ♦ ♦      Search functions well but multiple search engines are confusing
Overall Design ♦ ♦          Homepage lacks luster and clear organization
iPhone Navigation ♦ ♦          App available for PLoS Medicine and iPad App available for all PLoS journals

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