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Thoughts on ‘Free’ and Science

I recently received a free copy of Free from Chris Anderson, via an offer on his blog. Having just finished reading it, I thought I would offer my thoughts on it. I’m going to sidestep the whole debate that has encompassed many big-name thinkers such as Malcom Gladwell and Seth Godin and instead focus on Free as it relates to my area of the world: science and academia.

While not mentioned very often in the book, Anderson does use an instance of pricing from the scientific publishing world as one of his fifty examples of Free business models:

Three Party, or ‘Two-Sided,’ Markets (one customer class subsidizes another)

Give away scientific articles, charge authors to publish them (Public Library of Science)

The Public Library of Science (PLoS), is a relatively new scientific publisher that inverts the usual method of journals. The old style is that authors get published for free and the journals must be subscribed to in order to read them.

In most cases, universities subscribe to all the major journals, allowing academics to read papers. However, not all universities can afford all journals, and there are many other people (who might not even be scientists, just scientifically interested individuals) who are interested in the results of scientific research. Since free exchange of new knowledge is vital for further new discoveries, PLoS (along with BioMed Central, which also has free journals) is attempting to make that possible through their model. In the case of PLoS, the authors (or the authors’ institutions) pay to be published and then the journal is free to all (the research is of course still subject to peer review). While the journal industry still has many different business models operating alongside each other, it will be interesting to see how these changes affect the publishers over time.