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Scientific Publishing: An Industry in Flux

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Illustration by Jillian Varonin/BMS4

For scientists around the world, the open access movement has radically changed how journal articles are read and distributed by offering an alternative to the dominant subscription-based access model. Today, anyone can access at least some scientific articles on the web. In this three-part series, we examine the impact of open access journals on the scientific publishing industry.

Part I

By Alexandra Greer
Science Editor

As scientists and medical researchers at UCSF, we are accustomed to having ready access to the current body of scientific knowledge at our fingertips. It’s simply a matter of hopping on the Internet or heading over to the library. We give little thought to how this scientific data made its way to us. 

We may be somewhat familiar with the publication process: scientists write up their laboratory findings and submit it to a scientific journal for consideration and pay the necessary fees.  If all goes well, it gets published. End of story.

In fact, the business of scientific publishing is a complex, multi-layered infrastructure, not unlike the television industry where producers create programs, networks buy the programs, and large cable and satellite distributors bundle the networks into packages which are then sold to end users on a subscription basis.

The annual revenues generated from English-language scientific journal publishing are estimated at about $9.4 billion in 2011, with 52 percent coming from the United States, according to Outsell, Inc., a marketing agency focused on the publishing industry. The total size of the global science, technology and medicine (STM) market in 2011 (including journals, books, technical information and standards, databases and tools, and medical communications) was estimated by Outsell at $23.5 billion.

For decades, the large publishers have served as a middleman between the individual journals and the universities, operating on a subscription business model. Publishers, such as Reed Elsevier, John Wiley & Sons, Springer, and Ovid bundle an array of scientific journals and then charge university libraries a subscription fee to access the journals.

However, like other publishing industries today, disruptive technologies and new business models are forcing rapid and massive changes. And these changes are already affecting how and where scientists publish their research.

I think the subscription model’s days are very numbered now,” said Dr. Peter Binfield, co-founder of the open access journal PeerJ, in describing the changing publishing landscape. “It’s been driven by all sorts of things, like legislation, peoples’ education about the issues, the fact that library can’t pay for their subscriptions. All of that comes into play.”

Most notably, open access journals—peer-reviewed scientific journals where accepted manuscripts are publicly available through a Creative Commons license and do not require a subscription for access—have become increasingly popular with scientists around the world and are challenging the traditional business model based on journal subscription fees.

“In the next five years,” Binfield predicted, “open access will become the dominant business model in the industry.”

The Unbreakable Circle

Scientific publishers have traditionally distributed their packages of journals for an annual subscription fee.

While it’s possible to unbundle the package of journals to separate the so-called dud journals from the big-ticket journals, this can be time consuming and cumbersome. Still, universities do sometimes pick and choose which journals to subscribe to. More commonly, universities opt for the publishers’ “big deal,” which is a subscription to all the journals in a publisher’s offerings. The UC Libraries do not subscribe to the big deals for most publishers, according to Anneliese Taylor, assistant director of Scholarly Communications and Collections at the UCSF Library.

UCSF, as part of the University of California system, benefits greatly when it comes to access to publications. It gets access to most of the journals the entire university system subscribes to, and pays a portion of the total UC cost.

Each year, the California Digital Library (CDL), on behalf of the University of California, negotiates with the publishers that represent scientific journals. In the 2012-2013 academic year, UCSF contributed $1.5 million for its share of journal subscriptions. A majority of that money came from state funds, followed by gifts/endowments and a small contribution from the UCSF Medical Center.

Traditional journals make money by signing contracts with the publishers, who often vie for representation of well-regarded journals.

“Sometimes the publishers fight over them,” said Taylor. “Every year there’s a group of them that will switch. It’s often that these publishers are offering different incentives to those societies for hosting their journals. A lot of it is financial, because these publishers are doing really well.”

The journals themselves charge authors to publish. There are “page fees for accepted papers, and occasionally submission fees (even those that are ultimately rejected). These fees often even rise with “impact factor”—a measure of a scientific journal’s prestige based on the rate that articles published in that journal are in turn referenced by other articles from any journal.

However, the majority of a journal’s revenues come from subscription fees, usually via the publisher, as opposed to page fees, according to Binfield, who prior to co-founding PeerJ was also an executive at several subscription-based publishers.

Between 68-75 percent of the publishers’ revenues come from subscriptions, according to the 2012 “STM Report” by the International Association of Scientific, Technical and Medical Publishers.

At an academic institution like UCSF, it not uncommon to pay for doing research at the front end, and then pay subscription fees so that the UCSF researchers and their colleagues may access the results of that research in a scientific journal. Until recently, this was the unbreakable circle of scientific publishing.

Meanwhile, those outside the circle—meaning outside of academia—or without the means to pay the often exorbitant prices (as much as $31.50) for individual articles, had no way of accessing primary scientific data that in many times cases was derived from public funding.

Then, the open access movement came along.


Opening the Circle

Open access was an idea that emerged in the late 1990s with the goal of making scientific research available to all. An open letter was circulated amongst the scientific community, signed by Dr. Patrick Brown of Stanford University, Dr. Michael Eisen of UC Berkeley, and Dr. Harold Varmus of the National Institute of Health, urging scientific publishers to provide access to journal articles for free. Thousands of scientists from universities around the world pledged only to “publish in, edit and review for, and personally subscribe to” open access journals.

However, the goal remained out of reach without the support of the journals and publishers, as researchers had no publication alternative that offered the promise of open access, but still maintained the rigorous peer review, impact and reach of current publications. Despite overwhelming public support for open access, researchers quickly found it was exceedingly difficult to build a new model of scientific publishing from the ground up.

One of the leaders in this push was a non-profit scientific publishing project called the Public Library of Science, or PLoS. The goal of PLoS was very different from many other journals: to provide an online-only, free-for access, peer-reviewed journal of scientific research.

In 2003, PLoS realized that to attain its goal of open access, it would have to become a publisher itself and on October 13, 2003, it launched its operation with the publication of a peer-reviewed, online-only, scientific journal entitled PLOS Biology.

Since then, PLoS One has gone from publishing roughly 1000 articles/year to an overwhelming 33,000/year in 2013. In addition, many new open access journals have also begun publishing. In just the last five years, the number of open access journals has increased 183 percent.

As of 2013, more than 10 percent of published science, technology and medicine (STM) research was published in open access journals, and it’s projected to increase.

“In four to five years that could easily reach around 50 percent,” said Binfield.

Based on the initial response to PLoS and other open-access journals, it seemed like closed-access journals’ lucrative lock on the industry was in trouble. Scientists were increasingly publishing in open access journals, and it was becoming a stipulation of many scientific grants. In 2008, the NIH stated in its Public Access Policy that the results of any research funded by the NIH must be made available for free to the public within 12 months of publication.

In 2012, UCSF additionally required that all research published by UCSF authors be made available for free, regardless of which journal published the research. In July 2013, the entire UC system also adopted this open access policy.

Despite significant investment by UCSF in the open access movement, there is still pressure for UCSF scientists to publish in closed-access journals because of the prestige associated with such closed-access journals as Science, Nature and Cell.

“Closed-access subscription journals have been around longer,” said Taylor of the UCSF Library. “They’ve had time and an opportunity to build reputation and build prestige.”

Open Access’ Increasing Impact

Open access journals, by comparison, are relatively new to the playing field. PloS One, for example, only started receiving an impact factor in 2007. Impact factor is a measure of the frequency with which the average article in a journal has been cited during the two preceding years.

The Web of Science, which calculates impact factor, typically only indexes journals that are three or more years old. Since 2007, PLoS One has significantly increased in prestige: its 2012 impact factor was calculated to 4.092, and PloS Biology was recently calculated at a strong 11.452—higher than many influential closed-access journals such as Journal of Cell Biology or Blood.

In just the past 10 years, open access publishing went from a theoretical model to a substantial and respected part of scientific publishing. PLoS’s CEO Elizabeth Marincola has witnessed much of this growth first-hand.

“The open access movement is growing and thriving, with an increasing number of open access journals and articles being published, more institutions and funders implementing open access policies, and more people accessing open access research,” she said.

PART 2: What happens to a subscription-based industry when more and more journals start offering a free alternative? In the next installment of this series, we examine how the open access movement continues to disrupt the scientific publishing industry, and how journals and publishers are adapting to the changing landscape.

Alexandra Greer recently received her PhD and is a postdoc at Genetech.

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