A top publisher of biomedical journals, Cell Press, recently announced a new policy to allow free, on-line access to articles in its journals beginning one year after they first appear in print. The move comes amid a debate over how the high cost of many scientific journals is affecting the availability of important research findings.

The opening up of Cell Press's archives was welcomed by some, but others described it as a defensive move in a growing battle over the cost of subscribing to scientific journals, particularly the cost charged to university libraries. "On average we spend $5 million a year on journals, and for that we get about 11,000 [titles], so you can see that they average around $400 or $500 each," he says.

Bill Potter is the top librarian at the University of Georgia. "We simply can't continue to afford those. Or if we buy these journals, that means we buy fewer books or fewer journals in the humanities and social sciences," he says.

The economics of publishing scientific journals is somewhat peculiar. The scientist-authors are not paid, and the journal assumes the expense of sending out a proposed article to be checked by other researchers in a process called "peer review." Many journals, particular the small, specialty publications, spread those costs over relatively small circulations.

That said, Cell Press' chief executive officer, Lynne Herndon, defends her publications' subscription fees. "Our prices have always delivered very, very good value. Cell is published 26 times a year, and that is a very low price compared to the prices of some other scientific publications - not all, but some," she says.

Her company's flagship journal, Cell, has a circulation of about 12,000. An individual subscription to Cell is about $160 a year for both the printed magazine and the online edition. An institution pays six times more for the print edition alone, and a site license for online access can cost up to about $10,000, depending on the size of the university's biomedical programs.

Cell Press is owned by Elsevier, an Amsterdam-based company that is a leading scientific publisher and a leading target of critics who complain about the company's pricey journals.

Institutional subscription prices for many journals - not just Elsevier's - have been increasing faster than inflation in recent years, says Rick Johnson of SPARC, a group of mainly large university research libraries. "They've seen their journal prices across the board go up between 1986 and 2002 by 227 percent. At the same time the consumer price index has gone up just 64 percent," he says.

Some scientists and the institutions that buy the journals they publish in, think it's time to devise a new model for disseminating research.

"Our goal is to make the world's scientific and medical literature a freely-available public resource," says Michael Eisen, a co-founder of the Public Library of Science. Like the public libraries that exist in many countries, PLoS, as it's known, aims for free dissemination of scientific knowledge by upending the traditional economics of scientific publishing. "Traditionally, and largely today, they recover their costs - and often make a healthy profit - by charging people to access the papers they have published. And the problem with the model in which you charge people to access information is that you have to prevent access for people who haven't paid."

Unlike conventional journals, those published by the Public Library of Science charge the authors $1,500 per article. Anyone can read articles online for free, or you can subscribe to the print edition.

While the business side of open access publishing may be radically different, one thing open access advocates don't want to change is the peer review process, says Rick Johnson of the library group SPARC. "The peer review system is really central to science, and how it works may evolve over the years to come. [But] I think most sensible participants would agree that the filtering that it does and the signaling of relative quality is something that shouldn't go away," he says.

It's too soon to say whether open access journals will replace traditional scientific publishing. But the open access movement does appear to be gaining momentum. In addition to this month's action by Cell Press, Britain's Oxford University Press recently announced one of its leading journals - Nucleic Acids Research - is switching to the open access model. And a month ago, a U.S. Congressional committee recommended that research funded by the taxpayer-supported National Institutes of Health be made freely available to the public not more than six months after publication.