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Jonathan and Michael Eisen with their mother (front row), grandmother, aunt, grandfather, and father (back row)
It’s hard to find two more passionate advocates for Open Access than Michael and Jonathan Eisen. But it wasn’t always that way. These brothers, who are top scientists in the field of genomics and bioinformatics, had different takes on it at first. Michael thought it was “logical” while Jonathan said it sounded “unbearable.”
About 10 years ago when the schism existed, Michael was working at a university lab and launching the Public Library of Science (PLoS). Jonathan, who is 18 months younger, was working on genome sequencing projects at The Institute for Genomic Research (TIGR), a small, non-profit research institute.
Jonathan was just the kind of scientist that Michael was targeting to publish in an online journal. He was young, sensible, smart and writing prominent papers. “If I couldn’t convince by brother, then this was never going to work,” recalls Michael, now 43.
Jonathan and Michael grew up in Bethesda, Maryland, within walking distance of the National Institutes of Health where their parents worked as scientists. While the family watched NOVA on PBS, visited museums, and spent lots of time exploring the outdoors, there wasn’t a big push for the boys to follow in the family business of science.
“I’m sure we encouraged it… but I tried to let my kids go and do what they wanted,” says their mother Laura Eisen, now a professor who teaches chemistry and biochemistry at George Washington University. The other siblings include Lisa, 35, an environmental lawyer and Matthew, 21, a music sound engineer.
The older boys were interested in lots of things growing up—probably baseball more than science, says Laura. “They were fun kids,” she recalls. “They were not geeky.” Instead of science fairs, they marched in the band and played sports.
The Eisen brothers say their grandfather, Benjamin Post, who specialized in small molecule X-ray crystallography, was a key scientific influence. “He exuded science,” says Michael. “It was what he was all about.”
Jonathan recalls at age six his grandfather telling him Einstein’s thought experiments and making him want to cry. “Relativity is a little bit hard to grasp when you are a little kid,” he says.
Michael was more drawn to math, while Jonathan always had an interest in the life sciences. “When our grandfather bought us TRS 80 computer, Mike programmed it, so I didn’t have to,” says Jonathan. “I kept playing with bugs and bird watching.”
Both headed off to Harvard University after graduating from Walt Whitman High School. Jonathan started out in East Asian studies, but switched over to biology where he got his doctorate. Michael received his A.B. in mathematics and Ph.D. in biophysics from Harvard.
Converging of careers and interests
So how is it they ended up in the same field, in the same part of the country? Jonathan is now an evolutionary biologist at the University of California, Davis. Michael is now an evolutionary biologist at University of California, Berkeley.
“You mean other than him completely copying me?” says Jonathan, in a sarcastic, sibling jab, calling Michael a “Johnny-come-lately.” Jonathan says it was an independent convergence—the two talked about evolution, they knew people in the same circles with projects that overlapped in genomics. Michael says they were headed in the same career direction independent of each other, which speaks to its deeper roots.
As a postdoctoral fellow at Stanford in the mid 1990s, Michael began working on the first generation of genome-scale experiments. But as the size of the experiments grew, it became a challenge to gather all the relevant literature needed to understand them. Fortunately—at least it seemed at the time—this was also the period when scientific journals began to move online. “It didn’t take a rocket scientist to think that we could use articles online to help us interpret the experiments we were doing,” says Michael.
What motivated Michael from the beginning was not a crusade just for the public to get access to information, although clearly that was part of it. He wanted scientific literature to become much more than just a collection of individual papers. There were ways of mining, using and linking literature together, but they were being inhibited by restrictions journals placed on who could access the literature and how it could be used.
Initially, when papers were distributed in print, charging people to receive copies made perfect sense. But once the Internet came along, it no longer did. It seemed so illogical to Michael that scientists do all this work and then give away their papers to a journal. The contributions journals made to science paled in comparison to that of the scientists and the people who funded them. “So why,” Michael wondered, “did journals own the final product?”
Michael, who credits his postdoctoral advisor Patrick Brown with opening his eyes to the flaws in the system, expected others in science, including his brother, to also recognize that the current system was illogical and needed to be eliminated. At first Michael and Brown thought they could simply persuade and rally the scientific community around the idea that online journals should be free to all, but they encountered a clear obstacle in the deeply entrenched prestige possessed by the traditional journals.
Developing the model for PLoS
Eventually, as a last-resort, Michael, Brown, and former NIH Director Harold Varmus took action on their own and developed a new model that would morph into the Public Library of Science (PLoS). The objective was to show scientists it was possible to build their careers in journals not based on the traditional subscription model and to show publishers there was a way to publish journals and make money that was not dependent on a subscription business model.
So, very reluctantly, Michael got into publishing. “No one was listening to us. We were increasingly being viewed as cranky, crazies,” says Michael. “It was put up or shut up.”
In 2001, the organization was launched and in 2003 the first journal published on PLoS.
While Michael was on fire about the idea of opening and free sharing of science, Jonathan was initially skeptical. “He correctly viewed it as risky,” recalls Michael. “He didn’t see the need to do it.”
Michael’s talk about “open everything”—having your notebook available to anyone at anytime—was scary, recalls Jonathan. So when Michael mentioned Open Access to the literature, Jonathan says he ignored it at first because the other aspects of openness were daunting.
The lobbying effort launches
And so Michael’s lobbying efforts began to get Jonathan’s papers on PLoS. The two would discuss the issue on the phone, at baseball games, over family dinners, and through email. Michael assumed Jonathan would see his logic. Michael tried to convince him the risks were less than what he thought, but changing his mind was more difficult than he thought. It forced Michael to hone his pitch.
“I assumed he would agree with me. How could he not?” said Michael. “I was surprised. I expected him to go along with me because he was my little brother. I thought: If you can’t get your family behind you on this, how can you succeed?”
Jonathan said he would roll his eyes while talking on the phone with Michael and listening to his arguments. “I was completely clueless. I had no understanding of either the costs of not doing this or the benefits that could come from doing this,” says Jonathan. His brother and the others involved in establishing PLoS thought of the true benefits from free and open before it even existed, but it didn’t just make sense to Jonathan.
The turning points
Michael laid the foundation, but there were two events that became turning points for Jonathan in his thinking about Open Access. At a 2003 meeting in Ft. Lauderdale discussing data sharing in genome sequencing projects, Jonathan became convinced that the most genome sequencing projects were being done for the community and not for individuals. Therefore, the data should be released with no restriction.
Following up on that meeting, Jonathan released data from one of his genome sequencing projects with no restrictions, something the genome centers generally were not doing at the time. “It didn’t hurt me. It helped me to release the data,” says Jonathan. “We got lots of feedback from people. We got all sorts of collaborators. We got lots of people who were more comfortable interacting with us.”
Still not convinced but beginning to see the logic in Open Access, Jonathan joined the first editorial board of PLoS Biology and put a paper up as an experiment in the new journal.
About this time, his wife had a medical emergency that led Jonathan to want to find out the latest research to help in her treatment. He was not able to get to the papers at the time because his small institution did not have subscriptions to most journals.
“Here I was in an emergency, scientifically able to read the papers and figure out what to do and I couldn’t get them,” he recalls. “I decided at that moment this was criminal, absolutely unethical and immoral to not have those papers available to the people who already paid for them by their taxes and could do something about it. That night at three in the morning, I was done with the old system.”
Coming to the same camp
Jonathan says he never looked back, but was an “outlier” among his colleagues for embracing this new way of publishing at first.
And now are the brothers on the same page?
“I’m much more serious about it than he is,” says Jonathan, in another tongue-in-cheek jab at his brother. While Michael spent five years getting PLoS started, he is not as intensively involved as in the past. Michael is more on the “big picture,” says Jonathan, while he’s more aggressive in the “little picture” and involved in the details that will force Open Access upon people. “I go out of my way to give talks about this all the time and work with people supporting openness,” says Jonathan, who is now academic editor-in-chief of PLoS Biology.
“He’s become a complete convert… He’s become our strongest evangelist,” says Michael.
“It was not only gratifying to me that my brother joined the cause; in many ways he become our most vocal proponent not just in my family, but in the world. We succeeded with him beyond any reasonable measure – in commitment to Open Access, understanding of the issue and desire to make it work as well as possible.”