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 BPN Newsletter Issue No 30, May 2002 


Open access in scientific publishing - handing back the power

Becky Fishman
Becky Fishman is Membership Director, BioMed Central Ltd, Middlesex House, 34-42 Cleveland Street, London W1T 4LB, UK. +44 20 7631 9990 (tel), +44 20 7631 9926 (fax); email:;

It is only in the last few years that the role of the science publisher has come under direct scrutiny, and only in the very recent past that any significant action has been taken to change the way that research is published, disseminated and priced. There can be few individuals involved in - or even on the peripheries of - scientific research, who are unaware of the many traps and pitfalls of publishing scientific research papers. It is worth listing and examining these pitfalls in order to illustrate what is wrong with the current publishing model, and it is also worth examining the burgeoning alternatives to it.

The Current Model
The relationship between scientific researchers and publishers has never been an easy one. Mike Eisen of the Lawrence Berkeley National Lab in the US has said that the role of the publisher is 'like a midwife… they are paid for their role, and at the end of the day they give the baby back to the parents'. However, with subscription fees or licences in place to protect their content, and by demanding that authors hand over complete copyright of their research papers in most cases, publishers are not in fact giving anything back. The content is being sold, often at astoundingly high prices, and it is being sold back to the very people who created it in the first place, either to scientists directly, or to the institutions to which they are affiliated.

In fact, if they don't already know it, scientists worldwide would probably be shocked to realize what a phenomenally lucrative business scientific publishing can be. Some subscription prices have increased by as much as 140 per cent over ten years. The scary thing is that there is no limit on how high these prices will go. Scientists need access to research papers, and the publishers who own the papers know that they are in a position of strength. Until the model changes, the prices (and profits for publishers) will continue to increase.

Not before time, a number of scientists are now asking the question: 'What are the publishers doing for us?' There is a groundswell of opinion that subscription prices for research journals do not in any way reflect the quality or value that is added to the research by publication, nor do they reflect the costs associated with this. In fact, there is a strong argument for charging no fees whatsoever.

The problem with charging subscription fees for research is that this limits access to information which should be available to the entire scientific community if it is to be of any real, lasting use. In order for research to be useful, it must be used. For it to be used - that is, read, applied, extended and cited - it must be accessible. By putting up barriers, be they financial or legal, traditional publishers are imposing constraints on the communication of science, and are effectively damaging science and its progress.

Financial constraints aren't the only things that have left scientists feeling furious and powerless. By having to transfer copyright of their work to the publishers, authors are unable to place their work on a publicly accessible server. Once they have handed over their work for publication, it no longer belongs to them, and of course they see none of the profits. In addition, the slowness and inefficiency of the traditional publishing process (submission to publication of a manuscript can take up to six months, sometimes more) is particularly infuriating. In a field where the timely publication and currency of research are paramount, and where many competing researchers are chasing the same goal, having your paper sit around in a pile on an editor's desk for an indeterminate amount of time before you are even asked to make the first necessary revisions for publication is excruciating. This may lead to a loss of research funding or possibly even the loss of a patent on your findings. No wonder the authors are starting to cast about for alternatives, and for a way to change the model.

The Alternatives
There are a number of initiatives that have been created in order to modify or even do away with the traditional model of scholarly publishing. Some are publicly funded, some are commercial companies, and some are just an expression of a consensus, but all have the aim of supporting and serving the scientific community.
PubMed Central is a public initiative sponsored by the National Institutes of Health in the USA. It provides free online access to the full text of life science research articles. PubMed Central is not a publisher. It does not accept articles directly from authors, but it is instead a large repository of research papers, freely accessible to anyone. Existing publishers can contribute by making original research papers available through PubMed Central. Publishers that do this include the British Medical Journal, the Journal of the Institute of Physics, BioMed Central, and a few others. However, PubMed Central is not yet the key resource that it was originally intended to be - many of the larger publishers refuse to contribute their content to it, fearing that it will decrease their profits, and as contribution is not obligatory, it is only the more philanthropic publishers who place their content here.

The Public Library of Science (PLoS) is an initiative spearheaded by Mike Eisen of Berkeley and Pat Brown of Stanford University amongst others. These eminent life scientists, incensed by the failings of the larger traditional publishers, created an open letter, which has gathered around 30,000 signatories so far from 177 countries. The main objective of the letter is that the permanent, archival record of scientific research and ideas should neither be owned nor controlled by publishers, but should belong to the public, and should be freely available through an international online public library. The letter states:

We pledge that, beginning in September 2001, we will publish in, edit or review for, and personally subscribe to, only those scholarly and scientific journals that have agreed to grant unrestricted free distribution rights to any and all original research reports that they have published, through PubMed Central and similar online public resources, within 6 months of their initial publication date.

The Budapest Open Access Initiative was created in connection with the Soros Foundation at a meeting in Budapest in December 2001. The purpose of the meeting was to accelerate progress in the international effort to make research articles in all academic fields freely available on the internet. Like the PLoS, the initiative also takes the form of an open letter, which expresses support for two directions in publishing. The first of these is the self-archiving of research papers (whereby authors retain copyright and can deposit their refereed journal articles in open electronic archives, making them fully searchable and accessible to all). The second is the establishment of alternative journals, created by scientists for scientists, as the letter says:

Because journal articles should be disseminated as widely as possible, these new journals will no longer invoke copyright to restrict access to and use of the material they publish. Instead they will use copyright and other tools to ensure permanent open access to all the articles they publish. Because price is a barrier to access, these new journals will not charge subscription or access fees, and will turn to other methods for covering their expenses.

The initiative has been signed by the Budapest participants and a growing number of individuals and organizations from around the world. These represent researchers, universities, laboratories, libraries, foundations, journals, publishers, learned societies, and kindred open-access initiatives.

BioMed Central is an independent commercial online publishing house committed to providing free, full text access to all the peer-reviewed research papers that it publishes in all areas of biology and medicine (approximately 60 titles so far). Access to papers is immediate and barrier-free - no login or password is needed, just an internet connection. BioMed Central was launched in May 2000 and is part of the Current Science Group of independent companies, which has offices in London, New York, Philadelphia and Tokyo.

Because BioMed Central is an online publisher, none of the spatial constraints of print exists - an article is as long as it needs to be. The barrier-free access means that all papers published in BMC journals have high visibility - on average 200 downloads per month per article, and authors have access to download statistics for their own papers. Most importantly perhaps, BioMed Central authors are not required to transfer copyright, so that they can keep control of their work and ensure that it is placed on a public access server if they so wish. All papers are permanently and securely archived in PubMed Central as soon as they are published, and are indexed in PubMed, CrossRef, BIOSIS and a number of other citation indexes, which makes them fully searchable. Publication speed is rapid: on average 11 weeks, since all processes, from submission to peer review to publication, take place online.

As a commercial publisher, BioMed Central must generate revenue to support its publishing programme, and it has established various means of doing this. Revenue is generated from article-processing charges of $500 per published article, although waivers for this charge are available to authors from developing countries, and to those who, for other reasons, may not be able to pay. In January 2002, BioMed Central also introduced an Institutional Membership Programme to take the pressure of paying the processing charge away from individual authors. Authors from institutions which become members of BioMed Central receive an automatic waiver of the processing charge each time they publish a paper with BioMed Central, thus shifting the business model from output-paid (subscription charges) to input-paid (article processing charges/membership fees). The membership programme provides institutions with a real means to actively support open access in scholarly publishing. So far, around 20 institutions have become members, including Harvard University, Cancer Research UK and the World Health Organization. The cost of membership is based on the number of active researchers at an institution.

BioMed Central has also introduced a 'start your own journal' programme, which allows scientists to launch new journals in specialist areas, and provide the research content free of charge. Would-be editors are required to provide a scope statement, assemble an editorial board, select a journal title and provide lists of potential authors for a new journal. BioMed Central provides the publishing platform, a web site and the technical expertise. New titles launched so far include Cancer Cell International, Malaria Journal and Microbial Cell Factories, and to date around 30 journals have been signed up.

The Future
Open access initiatives and publishers such as BioMed Central still have many hurdles to overcome. The model is new and unknown, and ideas such as article processing charges are not yet common, but it is clear that a new scenario is starting to emerge, and these are challenging times in scholarly research publishing. The complexity of the issues may mean the industry would have to grapple with a diversity of questions from the role of scholarship to that of publicly and privately funded research repositories, and the role of publishers within the structure, for instance. But the authors are taking charge. And publishers need to take this into cognizance in their responses to questions on whether publishing should become a service to researchers and their communities, rather than a favour that is done for them. The new initiatives do not profer all the answers, but if they hopefully serve to increase competition and break the monopolies that larger publishers have, thereby increasing market efficiency and cost-effectiveness to academia and its publishing, they would be creating a constructive solution.

Ultimately, it is up to the scientists to work out how they want their work to be available, and all viable publishing models must come from and flow to the community which they serve.

Related Websites:
PubMed Central:
Public Library of Science:
Budapest Open Access Initiative:
BioMed Central:
For more on the current debate on open access in academic publishing, see

 [end] [BPN, no 30, 2002, pp 17-19.]

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