November 25, 2004 7:09 pm

Internet upstarts v traditional publishers

The benefits to scientists of open access scientific publishing provided by the internet are too significant to be ignored, says Matthew Cockerill

The progress of science is ultimately defined by peer-reviewed journal articles: they record the results of research and act as a foundation for all future research.

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In the UK alone, billions of pounds of tax-payers’ money are spent annually on research, so the government might be expected to take a prudent interest in how the resulting journal articles are published, archived and made accessible. Surprisingly, though, copyright to publicly funded research articles is routinely signed over to publishers, who then sell limited, subscription-based access back to the scientific community.

The cost of publishing a scientific research article is a tiny fraction of what it costs to do the research in the first place; yet publishers end up controlling access to the findings.

What does this mean in practice? Researchers are frustrated by a lack of access to research, since no library can afford to subscribe to all relevant journals. Modern research is increasingly interdisciplinary, but the pressure on librarians to subscribe only to “core” journals limits cross-fertilisation between disciplines. Meanwhile, funders get less return on their investment because researchers are working without adequate access to previous research. Finally, the public is denied access to reliable peer-reviewed research findings - especially ironic in the case of medical research, where so much dubious information is openly accessible on the net.

A recent UK parliamentary committee report urged the government to help expand access to the results of research. But the government response was cautious and sceptical, and was concerned primarily with defending the interests of the traditional publishing industry. This has been perceived by some as a blow to the “open access” movement, but in fact open access, in the UK at least, has never been stronger.

The internet has made universal accessibility possible. A growing number of scientific journals have adopted an open access model and the Directory of Open Access Journals now lists more than 1,300 journals. Open access publishers, such as BioMed Central, recognise that there should be no barriers to access in order to maximise the impact of scientific research. Open access publishers tend to cover their costs via a charge for processing articles that is paid by an author’s institution or funder - hence the “author-pays” tag for this model.

Traditional publishers raise countless objections to the perceived threat of open access. Objections include such scaremongering as the suggestion that a payment-supported model would harm quality control by compromising peer-review or editorial judgment. But any journal’s reputation for quality and accuracy is critical in persuading authors to publish in it: successful open access journals will not accept scientifically unsound articles.

Similarly, open access publishing will not sound the death knell for scientific societies that publish traditional journals. In fact, far-sighted societies, including the National Academy of Sciences in the US, recognise that open access better serves their members’ needs and are moving their funding model away from dependence on surpluses from journal publishing. If a scientific society is genuinely serving its members’ needs, there is no reason why such a transition should be problematic.

Around the world, scientific funding agencies are recognising that the current publishing model must change. Only recently, two of the world’s largest biomedical funders, the Wellcome Trust and the US National Institutes of Health, have both drafted proposals calling for all funding recipients to deposit electronic copies of resulting research articles in a central archive, to be made freely available within six months of publication.

With support from librarians, the research councils, the National Health Service and countless individual researchers, the trend towards open access has acquired unstoppable momentum. This year, BioMed Central will publish at least twice as many open access research articles as in 2003, and almost every week another important journal announces it is moving towards an open access model.

The scientific community will ensure that open access becomes a reality because the benefits are simply too significant to ignore.

The author is technical director and co-founder of BioMed Central

It is a gradual evolution of the current model for publishing learned journals that will yield the best scholarly communication, argues John Enderby

Making the results of peer-reviewed scientific research freely available is an attractive and laudable goal. But the debate over scientific publishing has been confused by the misconception that the author-pays model, which charges scientists to publish their work rather than charging libraries to make copies available, is the only way of achieving open access.

There is no reason why current publishing practices, which cover costs through library subscriptions, cannot be adapted and developed to fulfil these open access aims. Many journals, including those of the Royal Society, are already adapting and others will follow suit.

The open access movement has put added pressure on journals to examine current practices, and that input is welcome in influencing developments. But this is only part of a more fundamental, long-running approach in which good publishers are responsive to the changing needs of authors, readers and librarians.

Meanwhile, the costs associated with publishing high-quality research articles must be met somehow. Proponents of the author-pays model seem happy to propagate the myth that theirapproach is less expensive.

Beyond shifting to an entirely online publication service and the cost savings associated with having no paper copies, it is difficult to see how further savings can be made, certainly without compromising on the quality of the end product.

There are also worries that the high quality of scientific peer review, which plays a vital role in the effective communication of research results between scientists,couldbe compromised by the author-pays approach. The costs of peer review of papers that are rejected must be met somehow. Therefore, in the author-pays model, the highest charges will be for the most prestigious journals with the highest rejection rates.

Learned societies, including the Royal Society, rely on revenues from publishing to fund activities that benefit science, such as funding researchers and undertaking science communication programmes.

Proponents of open access argue that scientists in the developing world cannot afford to access newly published scientific research because of subscription costs. Simply moving to an author-pays model will not solve the problem. Instead, those same scientists will not be able to afford to publish their own research in good scientific journals.The response is that scientists in developing countries could be subsidised by the publishers. Apart from thepracticality and invidiousness of defining who is a scientist in a developing country, the cost would have to be borne by other authors and those who fund them.

The real solution is for all journals to allow free access from time of publication to scientists in the developing world, something the Royal Society and others are already involved in and want to see across the industry. There are already schemes, such as the International Network for the Availability of Scientific Publications, which distributes journals freely to institutions in developing countries with the help of publishers, governments and the research community.

For wider public access around the world it is possible to maintain free online archives and the Royal Society, along with many others, makes its papers free after 12months.If the content of papers is of significant public interest it can be made available free of charge on publication. We did this, for example, when our journal Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences published the results of the UK government's farm scale trials on genetically modified crops.

The open access movement must present more than an ideological argument and provide evidence that its approach yields better scholarly communication. The Royal Society believes the evolution of the present business model offers the most sustainable solution. Experiments with this and other models should be encouraged and we will continue to work with academics, librarians, the government and other learned societies to meet the needs of the communities we serve.

The author is vice-president of the Royal Society

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