Calls for Open Access Challenge Academic Journals

It was a bad year for commercial scholarly science publishing. Next year could be worse.

This year pressure mounted on publishers to increase access to research. In January, the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development issued a declaration endorsed by 34 countries that more effort was needed to broaden access to publicly funded research. In June the European Commission launched an investigation into the scientific, technical and medical publishing (STM) market.

In July, a parliamentary committee in the United Kingdom published a report (PDF) that criticized many science-publishing practices. It urged funding agencies to mandate that publicly funded research be available in public archives.

Now the National Institutes of Health wants the results of research it funds to be publicly available, for free, six months after publication in a peer reviewed scientific journal. At $28 billion last year alone, the NIH is the largest single funder of medical research in the world, generating over 60,000 articles a year.

A final decision will come from the NIH in the next few weeks. The NIH was due to formalize the policy on December 1st, but it is taking time to analyze the 6,000 responses it received during the 60-day period of public comment. The plan will almost certainly go ahead, but whether the NIH asks for articles after six months, or longer, may change.

Currently, the results of this research are generally available in complete form through expensive online or print subscriptions. By encouraging researchers to post their work in a public archive, publishers’ exclusivity on NIH research papers would be cut to six months. Right now publishers hold the copyrights forever.

Across the world politicians, academics, librarians and patients are calling for greater access to the scientific record. So far, science publishers have resisted pressure to extend access any more than incrementally. The NIH plan increases that pressure.

It doesn’t mean the end of scholarly publishing. Researchers still need to see new results quickly, so academic libraries will still subscribe to journals.

“My faculty does not need to see new research in six months, they need it now,” said Linda Watson, Associate Dean and Director of the Claude Moore Health Sciences Library at the University of Virginia. “It doesn’t mean I’ll save money, but it does mean that, since I cut my print subscriptions to cut costs, my constituents in rural areas, like doctors and members of the public, can still access vital research, even though I no longer have copies to give on an interlibrary loan.”

Moreover, the NIH is just one source of the 1.2 million articles published by scientific, medical and technical (STM) journals each year.

But it does mark the beginning of a potentially seismic shift in the scholar-publisher relationship. Congress backed the NIH plan, signalling that politicians want public access to publicly funded research, potentially inspiring other governments to take similar action.

The NIH plan also signals the acceleration of an emerging trend. Last month the Wellcome Trust, a research fund in the UK, mandated that grant-holders must deposit their articles in a public archive, and the Max Planck Society in Germany wants its employees to do the same.

Conceivably, the European Commission might follow the NIH lead when it publishes the results to its investigation next year. It all means scholarly publishing is undergoing sudden, unplanned and involuntary change, an uninviting prospect for a successful and highly lucrative industry. The only way is down.

Though, really, it is not all that sudden. Access to scientific literature is a long-running debate. One timeline sets its origins in 1966, and certainly throughout the 1990s academics and librarians were discussing the issue.

Copyright rules for Biomed Central

Below is the copyright covering articles published in Biomed Central. Not all copyright allows any use of the article, but if the article is open access it should allow copying.

Anyone is free:
to copy, distribute, and display the work;
to make derivative works;
to make commercial use of the work;

Under the following conditions: Attribution
the original author must be given credit;
for any reuse or distribution, it must be made clear to others what the license terms of this work are;
any of these conditions can be waived if the authors gives permission.

Statutory fair use and other rights are in no way affected by the above.

Open access (OA) is an umbrella term that describes content that is both free of charge for readers and free of most copyright restrictions (see inset). It can take the form of either open access archives of research previously published in scholarly journals or open access journals that charge authors instead of subscribers.

“This is such an important piece of turf to defend. Science is not a commodity to be controlled by publishers. Science is a public good, not a private property and it should be freely accessible to everyone.” said Michael Eisen, assistant professor of genetics and development at the Lawrence Berkeley Laboratory and co-founder of the Public Library of Science, an open-access journal publisher.

In the current publishing model, scientists complete a piece of research, write up the results and submit the article to journals. They surrender all copyright and are not paid. Editors manage the peer-review and revisions. Peer-reviewers also work for free.

The peer-review is the gold standard of science, the common currency of research and the means by which new theories and discoveries are publicised and exchanged in the worldwide academic market for ideas.

“The peer review is absolutely essential,” said Watson. “It’s what science is about. It would be academic suicide to publish in a journal that did not have a serious peer-review policy.”

Publishers make a profit, authors receive peer-review, distribution of their work and, from certain journals, enormous prestige. One article in the right publication can earn a promotion. Readers get access if their library subscribes to the journal.

In the age of paper this arrangement was more or less bearable for everyone except librarians, who had to foot the bill.

It’s a big bill and scientific publishing is big business. Science is the fastest growing media sub-sector for the last 15 years, according to Morgan Stanley, a growth that shows no signs of slacking in the face of massive, and growing, government research budgets in the US, Europe, India and China.

STM journals are also among the most profitable publishing ventures. According to Sami Kassab, researcher at Exane BNP Paribas and author of an independent report on the sector, journal profits are, on average, 40%. Some 2,000 STM publishers produce 24,000 journals in a $7.3 billion industry.

Its profits are one source of the current challenges to the industry. They foster resentment among customers, the librarians, particularly given steep and regular price rises in the cost of journal subscriptions.

According to the Blackwell Periodical Price Indexes, there was an average increase in journal prices of 184.3% in medical journals and 178.3% in science and technical journals between 1990 and 2000. Institutional subscriptions to individual journals can cost up to $20,000.

Periodicals typically command the lion’s share of library collection budgets, up to two-thirds in many cases, with the remainder spent on books. Meanwhile, as prices rose and budgets declined, libraries at smaller institutions cut subscriptions to the least popular journals, and now they say they there is a crises in periodical publishing.

So, did the publishers get greedy?

“Greed is a word tainted with emotion,” said Sami Kassab, author of the Exane BNP Paribas report. “They maximised the potential profit from the market. They had huge pricing power and they sowed discontent among their customer base.”

Jan Velterop, publisher at the commercial open access publisher Biomed Central, puts it another way. “For any industry that habitually makes 40% profit, economically speaking, there’s something wrong with that market. It can’t be on the basis of free choice, there is a monopoly element there.”

Publishers argue that they add enormous value to the scholarly enterprise, providing vital peer review, editorial management and web access with enhanced functionality like bibliographical management and citation-linking, where footnotes in the article are linked directly to cited articles. Furthermore, they argue that costs-per-article declined through the ’90s as journals began publishing more articles and more people accessed articles via the web.

“In ’93 -’94, the average number of journals accessed by British universities was just under 4,000. By ’01 – ’02 it was up to 6,500. That’s a tremendous increase in access,” said Bob Campbell, CEO of Blackwell Publishing, a major publisher for learned societies.

The length of articles also increased as have the number of articles journals run in each issue. Publishers also say they have made large investments in Internet technologies to develop huge, comprehensive web-based portals of their content. All of these factors account for the rising costs of publishing, and with downloads are increasing 100% each year, libraries are receiving greater value each year, even as prices go up.

Campbell adds that publisher investment have yet to pay their greatest dividends. Through Crossref Search, eventually researchers will be able to conduct full text searches of scholarly articles, resulting in a tremendous boost in the relevance and detail of searches.

Bob Campbell believes the current concerns raised over access to and pricing of scientific literature is partly a negotiating tactic. “[Librarians] always make this fuss. You can go back to any decade that you like and the librarians complained that there was a journal crises and that there was too many journals,” he said. “This just goes round like the moon.”

“Certainly, I’d be happier if they charged less,” said Watson, “But we really believe that broadest possible access to information is in the best interest of science.”

Campbell added that a report (PDF) by the Centre for Information Behaviour and the Evaluation of Research (CIBER), sponsored by the Publishers Association, found in a survey of nearly 3,000 authors, that 61% were happy with access and 76% believed that access had dramatically improved in the last five years. The report also noted, however, that many participants made angry comments about the profits made by commercial publishers.

Not all publishers are commercial, and not all of them make the substantial profits enjoyed by Reed Elsevier and other leading companies. Many publishers are learned societies that use profits from publishing to further the goals of the society, such as the public understanding of science programs and others.

Eisen believes these societies will thrive in an open access world. “If these societies are serving their communities, those communities will fund their work. I don’t think journal prices can be justified because they finance scientific societies,” he said.

Profit margins, whether for learned societies or commercial publishers, are sustained by tight control of access to scientific articles. Ironically, this control is the second, perhaps more important, source of the industry’s current problems. STM publishers can, and do, charge large sums to libraries because they control access to the essential scientific record. Universities simply cannot do without the leading journals (though, conceivably, they could organize a strike).

In the 1990s, the debate centered on whether that control is too important to be left to commercial organizations not wholly dedicated to the needs of science.

After all, the Internet was developed, in part, to facilitate scholarly communication, yet its benefits were not appearing in the peer-review system, despite authors and peer-reviewers willingness to work for free.

“It’s possible to get away from the flaws of the old system,” said Velterop. “Why haven’t we done that already?”

Surprisingly, instead of reducing costs and facilitating communication, academics found that the Internet increased costs, as publishers passed on the cost of online migration, and failed to facilitate communication as the number of publisher portals multiplied.

Remarkably, scholarly journals have so far remained immune from the market disruptions the Internet wrought on the news, music and movie industries. Partly this is due to the limited appeal of its output, the conservative nature of its demographic and limited awareness among authors.

“Scientific authors are like cats and food. They have no concept of how expensive the food is, they just know that they want the best,” said Velterop.

Watson concurs. “I’ve tried to educate the faculty about the issues in publishing, but they remain completely oblivious,” she said.

By 1999, the time was ripe for something new, and Biomed Central, the first commercial open access publisher, was founded. It publishes over 100 peer-reviewed journals and generally charges authors $525 for publication. The author’s funding sponsor normally pays the fee, though it is waived if necessary. This is the open access journal.

In the same year, the then director of the NIH, Nobel Prize-winning medical scientist Dr. Harold Varmus, tried another approach. He set up an online repository for biomedical research, PubMed Central, and invited publishers to submit articles six to 12 months after publication. This is the open access archive. Few publishers signed up.

In March 2001, the Public Library of Science, co-founded by Varmus, sent an open letter, signed by 34,000 scientists from 180 countries, calling on publishers to submit articles to public archives like PubMed Central. Again, most publishers ignored the call. PLoS decided to follow the example of Biomed Central and establish an OA journal, PloS Biology, which is rapidly becoming one of the leading journals in its field.

In the last few years events accelerated dramatically, with the Budapest (February 2002), Bethesda (June 2003), and Berlin (October 2003) declarations all endorsing open access. Then, this year, the OECD and the rest had their say.

And now the NIH seeks to have all the research articles spawned by its funding freely available on PubMed Central six months after publication. The NIH is careful to describe the move as public access, couching it as a taxpayer-rights issue, rather than one based on either costs or the public-spirited ideals of science.

“This is not what the open access community really wants, we’d prefer immediate access to research, but this is a sensible compromise,” said Eisen.

But, however it’s couched, the move by the NIH is a major shift in the ongoing wrangle for control of the scholarly publishing process. Unlike authors or open access advocates, or even patient rights advocates, who also sought access to medical research, the publishing industry must listen to the NIH because it funds the research and so has a powerful voice in how that research is disseminated.

The current NIH policy only “requests” that authors submit their articles to a public archive, but it is not an unreasonable demand and author compliance will be a part of future grant application reviews. Besides, few authors would have any personal objections to another forum for their work; their only potential problem is whether publishers will grant permission for the material to appear there.

What inspired comparative indifference among publishers when proposed by Varmus or suggested by PLoS, provoked a prompt response from the industry when it was requested by the NIH. In the public comment period, Reed Elsevier asked (PDF) for the submission period to be set at 15 – 18 months, rather than six.

The failure to engage in the debate earlier is the reason publishers generally fail now to convince critics of their good faith and their willingness to address concerns about access to the scientific record. The reward for that failure is to be by-passed entirely by a NIH proposal that puts the onus squarely on researchers to ensure their articles appear on PubMed Central. For many, publishers have depleted their credibility entirely.

“I have no sympathy for them at all,” said Dr. Ian Gibson, chairman of the UK parliamentary committee that criticised publishers pricing practices. “They have shown no interest in engaging with the concerns of academics and libraries. Publishers are not interested in the benefit of science, they are thinking about their profits. The fight has only just started.”

Next year many more funders may follow the NIH lead. It could be another bad year for commercial science publishers.

About daithiohanluain