View Full Version : Scientific Publishing: The Promise and Peril of 'Open Access'

Wednesday, March 8th, 2006, 10:34 AM
The Promise and Peril of 'Open Access'

Free-subscription journals may loosen commercial publishers' stranglehold on scientific research, but skeptics say they're no panacea


If you wander through the stacks of university libraries, follow scientists into their research labs, or log on to vast stretches of scholarly cyberspace, you will find yourself on the battlefield of a war over scientific publishing.

The good guys, in the eyes of many scientists and librarians, are the revolutionaries offering an alternative to the publishing status quo. They are creating online journals that charge no subscription fees. These agitators for change want to rescue librarians from the tyranny of prohibitively costly journals -- upwards of $20,000 per year -- and to empower researchers who, because of the expense, often have difficulty keeping up with new developments in their fields. Instead of charging subscription fees, the new online journals require the authors to pay, charging fees that range from $500 to $1,500 -- a small sum compared with, say, most biomedical-research grants from the National Institutes of Health.

"I'm trying to change the way in which our society deals with academic information," says Harold E. Varmus, president and chief executive of the Memorial-Sloan Kettering Cancer Center, who is the most prominent leader of the so-called open-access movement.

Opposing Dr. Varmus and the other open-access revolutionaries are commercial publishers. These companies have become a favorite target of many librarians and researchers, who feel that the publishers keep raising journal prices merely to sustain high profit margins.

But for many in academe, the open-access picture is not so black and white. Most nonprofit publishers stand with their commercial counterparts, arguing that scientific societies might fold if their journals were forced to become open-access. Researchers who work outside the lucrative field of biomedicine, or who live in poor countries, question whether they can afford the authors' fees. Other skeptics doubt that the open-access journals can make ends meet.

What's more, open access may not even save universities money. If the new publications multiply but do not immediately replace subscription-based journals, the transition period will be uneasy and expensive -- and no one knows how long it will last.

"If we have to pay for both the existing journals and the author-pays fees, we're going to get killed," says Charles E. Phelps, provost of the University of Rochester.

The key players -- researchers, librarians, and publishers -- are watching the new open-access journals closely. At stake is the future of how scientists communicate, not to mention a $3.5-billion industry.

The open-access method of distributing scientific journals, says John E. Cox, a publishing-industry consultant, "is the most articulate and serious threat to the conventional publishing model that we've seen."

Busting Budgets

At Duke University's Medical Center Library, the deputy director, Rick Peterson, is examining back issues of a specialist journal. The Journal of Comparative Neurology demands more of his attention than do most of the medical center's other 1,752 journals because it costs the library $18,000 a year.

The 11 bound volumes that contain the 2002 issues of the journal take up less than half of a three-foot-long shelf. "From about here on," he says, pointing to the shelf, "that's 18 grand. Doesn't that blow your mind? It doesn't look like $18,000 to me."

The university also subscribes to Brain Research, which costs more than $21,000 for 2004; Biochimica et Biophysica Acta, which costs nearly $15,000; and Nuclear Physics A and B, at more than $23,000. All told, Duke's libraries receive 19 journals with annual price tags above $10,000.

For years, academic librarians have called for a halt to the escalation of journal prices. Librarians' budgets have not risen in proportion to the expanding number of papers published per journal and the number of journals over all, says Carol Tenopir, a professor of information sciences at the University of Tennessee at Knoxville.

On top of that, the growth in size of many journals has been outpaced by their price increases, which in the past decade have often exceeded 10 percent per year.

"The subscription model where the library pays," says Ms. Tenopir, "is beginning to break down."

Librarians have long felt voiceless in negotiations with publishers. Since every journal's contents are unique, university libraries feel compelled to subscribe to the journals that their faculty members need, almost regardless of cost.

But the recent price increases have forced librarians at many institutions to cancel subscriptions to journals that faculty members rely on. The libraries simply no longer have the money. Duke's medical-center library has endured budget cuts even as journal prices have soared, forcing it to cancel 525 of its 1,753 titles this year.

In November, Cornell University announced that it would have to cancel more than 200 subscriptions to journals from the publishing colossus Reed Elsevier, which produces more than 1,600 journals. Other major research universities have subsequently done the same.

Duke announced this month that it would cancel $400,000 worth of Elsevier titles. "We just don't want to tie up that much of our resources with one publisher," says Deborah Jakubs, Duke's director of collection services. The journal cancellations, she says, are "what it will cost us to buy our freedom."

At the University of California, faculty members have joined the battle. "They recognize long-term that this is one of the greatest threats to the scholarly process that we've seen," says Daniel Greenstein, librarian for systemwide planning at the University of California. "It's about disseminating information and the reproducibility of work. If that's no longer affordable, all of us shoot ourselves in the foot."

The university system spends $8-million per year on online access to Elsevier journals, which represents half of its budget for electronic journals. However, only one-fourth of electronic-journal use at the campus libraries involves Elsevier titles, the university estimates. Faculty members' response to Elsevier's prices was "shock and awe," says Mr. Greenstein. "All you do is mention a few numbers and they go apoplectic."

The academic senates on the Santa Cruz and San Francisco campuses called on faculty members to sever ties with Elsevier. Two professors at San Francisco started a boycott of journals published by Cell Press, a subsidiary of Elsevier that publishes a leading biomedical journal, Cell.

"These are very pressured times for many academic institutions," acknowledges Catherine May, director of corporate relations at Reed Elsevier. "They're all needing to shepherd their budgets very carefully. We're trying to be as sympathetic as we can be. On the other hand, we're seeing hugely increased usage of our journals."

Elsevier and California finally resolved their dispute in mid-January, signing a five-year agreement giving California faculty and staff members and students electronic access to 1,200 of the company's journals, including the Cell Press titles. The negotiated price was not revealed, but in a letter to faculty members, the chair of the universitywide Academic Senate said, "We have arrested for now the price inflation that has been common in this market."

Professors at other universities have been less engaged. Patricia L. Thibodeau, associate dean for library services and archives at the Duke Medical Center, describes faculty members as upset when they learn that a journal they use has been canceled but "very quiet" when she asks them to suggest alternatives.

The reason for most researchers' low level of interest may simply be that librarians are doing their jobs well: dropping duplicate subscriptions or the least-used titles, or using interlibrary loans to get journals they no longer subscribe to. Mark S. Kamlet, provost of Carnegie Mellon University, says library woes are "not very front and center" for faculty members at many universities.

Gaining a Voice

Libraries' budget concerns may finally be alleviated by the open-access movement, which is also piquing scientists' interest. At the same time that libraries have hit the wall, new journals have appeared that would cost subscribers nothing, backed by one of biomedicine's most prominent researchers. The new journals are paid for by fees charged to authors -- not an unprecedented move, since some traditional journals require authors to pay page charges and fees for color charts, in addition to charging readers subscription fees.

The open-access movement gained momentum and voice thanks to Dr. Varmus. The Nobel laureate, a former head of the National Institutes of Health, seized on the issue of access in 2000, joining with two other biologists to found a nonprofit organization called the Public Library of Science, or PLoS. It aims to make scientific and medical research freely available.

Other groups had begun publishing peer-reviewed, open-access journals before PLoS, including the commercial publisher BioMed Central, which claims more than 100 titles. But Dr. Varmus and his colleagues wanted to go further. He wanted to prove that open-access journals could compete with the top traditional journals, like Nature, Science, and Cell.

In 2002, PLoS received a $9-million start-up grant from the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation. Using that money, the group recruited a respected staff, including Vivian Siegel -- who had been editor of Cell -- as executive director. It also bought publicity, including a television commercial that ran during The Simpsons and The Late Show With David Letterman last summer.

In October, with extensive news-media coverage, PLoS published online the first issue of its flagship journal, PLoS Biology. The group's Web site received 500,000 hits in the first eight hours after the journal went online, with tens of thousands of downloads of a single research paper from Duke about monkeys' using brain implants to control a robotic arm with their thoughts.

The journal publishes about 10 research papers a month, along with essays, primers, book reviews, and lay-language synopses of each research report. Like the most prestigious traditional journals, it has been highly selective, accepting only 22 percent of the manuscripts submitted to it. This year, PLoS plans to introduce its second journal, PLoS Medicine, and it expects to begin several more-specialized journals in the next few years.

Saving Money?

Dr. Varmus and his team have excited many people in academe, but not everyone is certain whether PLoS Biology and other open-access journals will save universities money. Libraries still need to subscribe to traditional subscription-based journals.

Open-access advocates predict that the era of paying for both won't last long. They hope that as the number of open-access journals increases -- it currently hovers at around 700, compared with more than 20,000 traditional journals -- and as the journals' prestige and publicity grow, more and more scientists will choose to publish in them and not in the traditional journals, letting libraries cancel more subscriptions. Such competition, advocates hope, will drive subscription prices down, put some subscription-based journals out of business, and encourage publishers of traditional journals to make them freely available.

But even if all journals were to convert to author-pays business models, some universities might not see much savings. Open-access proponents say the new journals save money by publishing online, eliminating printing and distribution costs, as well as forgoing the large profits made by many commercial publishers. But a simple calculation finds that Duke, for one, might end up paying as much for open-access journals as it does today for traditional journals, or more.

In 2003, scientists and social scientists at Duke published about 4,500 papers, according to a search of the Science Citation Index and the Social Sciences Citation Index. If those reports had been published in author-fee journals, and if authors had paid PLoS's $1,500-per-paper fee, the total cost for Duke (if the university picked up the author fees, in place of subscription costs) would have been $6.75-million. Last year the university's entire budget for journals, including those in the humanities and at the medical center as well as online databases, was $6.6-million.

"Larger research institutions, where a lot of the writing is going on, ... will likely take on most of the burden" of financing author-pays journals, says Mary M.

Case, director of the Office of Scholarly Communication at the Association of Research Libraries.

However, many open-access enthusiasts argue that universities should not be responsible for author fees. Publishing, says Dr. Varmus, is really the last step of an experiment. "If you do research and don't publish it, you might as well not have done it," he says. So, the argument goes, governments and organizations that finance research should also pay for publishing the results.

Two of the largest nonprofit supporters of biomedical research, the Howard Hughes Medical Institute and the Wellcome Trust, have already vowed to finance grantees' author fees. Additional votes of support have come from public sources of funds in France, Germany, and other European countries.

Dr. Varmus says PLoS is discussing with the NIH and the National Science Foundation whether those agencies might add funds to their research grants designated for publishing in open-access journals. And both BioMed Central and PLoS do offer waivers for authors who cannot afford the fees.

Still, some argue that those fixes won't help researchers in fields that receive less money than biomedicine does, or those who work in countries with less research support. "A lot of good science is done, especially in biology, on a shoestring budget," says Richard T. O'Grady, executive director of the American Institute of Biological Sciences, an umbrella organization for scholarly societies in ecology, botany, taxonomy, and other life sciences. He predicts that journals in those fields would go out of business if they adopted an author-pays model because scientists would submit their papers elsewhere.

Converts to Open Access

Many biomedical researchers shrug off the open-access author fees. At Duke, Brigid L.M. Hogan says she regularly pays more than PLoS's fees in page and color charges to some traditional subscription-based journals. "I recently paid $2,000 for a short research letter in Genes and Development," she says.

Ms. Hogan, chair of the cell-biology department, was an early convert to the open-access movement. She resigned her position on the editorial board of Cell a few months ago, after having joined the editorial board of PLoS Biology. In late November, she submitted a manuscript to the new journal.

Many other scientists share her enthusiasm. S.K. Dey, a professor of pediatrics and cell and developmental biology at Vanderbilt University, submitted a paper to PLoS Biology because he likes the idea of free access and is impressed with the journal's editorial board. Although his manuscript was rejected, Mr. Dey says he would gladly submit another paper to PLoS.

BioMed Central and PLoS will need many established researchers like Ms. Hogan and Mr. Dey to publish in their journals in order to transform the initial publicity about the journals into long-lasting esteem among scientists, and to attract authors from among early-career scientists. At universities, decisions about job offers, promotions, and tenure often rely heavily on whether researchers have published in prestigious journals like Science, Nature, and Cell. "That's the goal of PLoS, to muscle into that top-three tier," says one biologist, who requested anonymity. "I'm skeptical."

Ms. Siegel, the PLoS executive director, says submissions to the journal are increasing. PLoS Biology has already received "a handful" of papers from assistant professors who hope to use the submissions as part of their tenure packages, she says.

Besides, say some open-access proponents, hiring and tenure committees should look favorably on scientists who are willing to stick their necks out for this cause.

"Open access will accelerate research in every discipline," says Peter Suber, a research professor of philosophy at Earlham College. "It will greatly enhance the mission of every university, which is to create knowledge and disseminate knowledge." Mr. Suber is also open-access project director for Public Knowledge, a nonprofit group that advocates the free flow of information.

In fact, a 2001 study in Nature showed that, at least in one set of disciplines, papers that appear free online are more likely to be cited by other researchers than those that do not. A scientist at NEC Research Institute analyzed nearly 120,000 papers in computer science and related fields. Those that were freely available online had been cited more often in other papers than were those not online, he found. The average number of citations of offline papers was 2.74, compared with 7.03 for those freely available online.

'Collateral Damage'

Other researchers worry that if open access takes wing, scientific societies may take a nose dive. "A large number of professional societies live by their publications," says James N. Siedow, Duke's vice provost for research and a professor of biology, as well as a former president of the American Society of Plant Biologists. Subscription revenue often helps pay for societies' infrastructure and professional activities like conferences, travel grants, and scholarships.

Representatives of many other societies echo Mr. Siedow. Open-access proponents' "issues are honorable," says Martin Frank, executive director of the American Physiological Society, but "there's always collateral damage. In this case, the collateral damage is the not-for-profit scientific scholarly publishers."

Scholarly-society publishers are put in a tough spot by the publicity surrounding PLoS and its supporters' outspokenness, Mr. Frank says. "The Public Library of Science makes the publishers of not-for-profits and the commercial publishers out to be ogres raping the authors, stealing money, making unseemly profit," he says. "We don't make unseemly profits, but any profits we make go back to the discipline of physiology and the membership."

But Dr. Varmus responds, "It pains me to hear officers of scientific societies say, 'We can't move to open access because our society will fold.'" He urges them to adapt to any loss of subscription income by finding other ways to raise revenues. "They shouldn't be surviving by denying to their members the virtues of Internet-based open-access publication," he says.

Mr. Frank sees that suggestion as just so much airy rhetoric. "I don't have a Nobel Prize," he says. "Nobody's going to listen to me."

"The bottom line is they're using the public forum to tell everybody that their [business] model is the best model," he says of open-access proponents. "They have not demonstrated that they can publish via a strictly author-pays model."

That's the bottom line for a lot of other publishers, commercial or nonprofit. "The author-pays model as it currently exists has not proven to be financially viable without philanthropic support and does not guarantee continuity," says Arie Jongejan, chief executive officer for science and technology at Elsevier, in an e-mail interview.

Neither PLoS nor BioMed Central has broken even yet. "We do expect it within a few years' time," says Jan Velterop, publisher of BioMed Central. The number of submissions is increasing, and the company should make a profit through economies of scale, he says. "We have three times as many papers as a year ago," he says.

PLoS, too, is growing, but Dr. Varmus says that to make ends meet when its $9-million grant runs out, in 2007, it plans to use other sources of income, including advertising and sponsorship. "A not improper analogy is public radio," he says. Last month PLoS began inviting individuals to become sponsors.

Many other publishers say they would have to charge far more than $1,500 per paper to cover their costs were they to transform their journals to the author-pays business model. The American Physiological Society estimates that it would have to charge authors $3,000 to publish papers in each of its 14 journals. The American Association for the Advancement of Science says it would have to charge $10,000 per paper in Science, because of the expenses attending its 90-percent rejection rate and the journal's costly news and review sections.

Nonetheless, some scholarly-society publishers, inclu-ding the American Physiological Society, are trying out a form of open access. One of the society's newer journals, Physiological Genomics, charges for subscriptions ($245 for both print and online access) but also gives authors the choice to pay $1,500 to allow their papers to appear online without password protection, so that anyone can read them. To date, 15 to 20 percent of the authors have paid the fee to provide open access to their papers, says Mr. Frank.

No commercial publishers contacted by The Chronicle say they are experimenting with open access, and industry consultants say they know of no such experiments. "We're concentrating on making our existing publishing model better," says Eric A. Swanson, senior vice president for scientific, technical, and medical publishing at John Wiley & Sons.

Many traditional-journal publishers, commercial and nonprofit, have increased access to their content in recent years. Many allow posting papers or preprints on Web sites or in institutional repositories. Some are digitizing their entire archives to allow electronic access, sometimes for a one-time fee. Most provide pay-per-view options for access to single papers, with fees ranging from a few dollars to a few tens of dollars. And many participate in projects sponsored by the World Health Organization and the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations to provide medical and agricultural journals to readers in developing countries at low or no cost.

The New England Journal of Medicine, which is published by the Massachusetts Medical Society, is among many traditional journals that allow free access to research papers once they are six months old. "As a result," says Christopher R. Lynch, vice president for publishing, "about 90 percent of our content is available to anyone."

But open-access proponents hold 100 percent as the gold standard. "Access to validated research results is a common good to be shared with anyone who has an interest, wherever and whenever," wrote Mr. Velterop, of BioMed Central, on an e-mail list for Elsevier customers.

Many traditional publishers see no pressing reason to change to open access. At Wiley, where most of the editors of the company's 350 scientific and medical journals are academic researchers, "we certainly haven't heard an outcry from editors to move to an open-access model," says Mr. Swanson.

"Right now, there's a lot more heat than light," he says. Wiley has seen no decrease in manuscript submissions since the open-access movement gained strength, he says.

The proponents of open access hope to put pressure on publishers by persuading scientists to make the switch to their side of the battlefield. But they may have their work cut out for them if Ricardo Pietrobon, an assistant professor of surgery and anesthesiology at Duke, is typical. Dr. Pietrobon says he believes in the idea of open access and that he prepared a manuscript to submit to a BioMed Central title two months ago. "I had a paper that was absolutely perfect for that journal," he says.

But, warning him that the journal might fold, colleagues at Duke talked him out of it. He sent the paper to a traditional journal instead.

Section: Research & Publishing
Volume 50, Issue 21, Page A10