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Scientific Publishing In The Era of Open Access

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Stacks of scientific journals on library shelves are becoming a vanishing sight as more publishers of- fer open access journals and other online subscription options. Photo by Mason Tran/DS4

This series explores the impact of open access journals on the scientific publishing industry. In this installment, we examine the publishing industry’s response to the growing popularity of open access journals.

Part 2

By Alexandra Greer
Science Editor

In October 2013, Science published an exposé of the peer review system at open access journals around the world. In his self-described “sting operation,” author John Bohannon submitted a critically flawed scientific article to hundreds of open access journals, with the intent of evaluating the quality of their peer review process.

Unlike the traditional closed access model of scientific publishing, in which subscription fees cover the cost of editing, publication and distribution of the scientific journal, open access journals are, as the name implies, free to access.

Bohannon’s article painted a bleak picture of open access peer review. Out of roughly 300 journals tested, 157 open access journals accepted the paper, 98 rejected it and 49 did not respond to the submission.

However, Bohannon’s article, along with the journal Science, received criticism for appearing biased because it failed to test the peer-review processes of any closed access journals alongside its test of open access journals.

This questionable piece led to speculation about Science’s motives. Open access offers scientists a publishing alternative to the traditional closed journal model, and its growing popularity among scientists could threaten the bottom line of traditional journals and publishers.

As both the content creators for as well as the end users of scientific journals, scientists are intimately wedded to the publishing industry. Until recently, scientists had few options when it came to where to publish their research.

The rise of the World Wide Web, with its ability to cut out the middleman, has brought disruption to scientific publishing. Open journals are able to make their articles available to the public for free over the Internet and are no longer reliant on publishers to negotiate with universities over subscription fees. As more scientists choose to publish in open access journals, they are forcing profound change upon a very large industry.

Lucrative Subscription Model

Scientific publishing is lucrative business, generating $9 billions in revenue annually, according to Outsell, Inc. a marketing firm focused on the scientific publishing industry. The main players are the journals, such as Science, and the publishers, such as Elsevier and Springer, who bundle the journals and sell them as annual subscriptions to research institutions and universities, like UCSF.

Elsevier, one of the most prominent publishers, earned just under $3 billion in profit in 2012, according to the Reed Elsevier Media Centre. Other large publishers, like Springer and Wiley, also annually generate profits in the billions.

“They’re making a lot of money and a fair amount of profit,” said Dr. Peter Binfield, co-founder of the open access journal PeerJ and former executive of several traditional closed-access publishers.  “And that’s almost all coming from subscriptions.”

The Science controversy highlighted the tension between the traditional scientific publishing industry and the open access movement.

The first open access journal, PLoS Biology was published in 2003. Since then, the number of scientific open access journals has significantly increased. The Directory of Open Access Journals (DOAJ) lists 8,847 open access journals in 2013, up from just under 5,000 in 2009.

Furthermore, increasing numbers of scientists are opting to publish in open access journals. In 2014, as much as 12 percent of all peer-reviewed science, technology and medicine (STM) articles now being published are open access, according to Elizabeth Marincola, CEO of PLoS.

Legislating Change

The open access movement received a boost in 2008 when the NIH stated in its Public Access Policy that the results of any research funded by the NIH must be made publicly available in an open access format within 12 months of publication.

Publishers have the most to lose when the industry shifts to more open access content. Without the need for subscriptions, journals do not need publishers to serve as middlemen between the journal and subscriber.

The publishers responded to the NIH Public Access Policy by supporting legislation that would significantly weaken open access mandates. In 2011, the Research Works Act (RWA) was introduced in Congress that sought to reverse the NIH’s policy to make all publicly funded research open access.

The Association of American Publishers (AAP), made up of 425 publishers including essentially all major scientific publishing companies from the American Chemical Society to Elsevier, was the primary backer of the bill.

In a critique of the bill published in the New York Times in 2012, Dr. Michael Eisen, associate professor of molecular and cell biology at UC Berkeley noted that the Research Works Act “should dispel any remaining illusions that commercial publishers are serving the interests of the scientific community and public.”

He urged academic researchers around the world to respond by “publishing exclusively in one of the many ‘open-access’ journals that are perfectly capable of managing peer review,” and cancelling institutional journal subscriptions.

Surprisingly, many prominent members of the AAP such as the AAAS (Science), Macmillan (Nature) and BioMed Central publicly opposed the bill.

Many scientists singled out Elsevier—publisher of more than 2,000 scientific journals including Cell and The Lancet (and any journal listed in Science Direct)—as the driving force behind the unpopular bill. Elsevier had made significant campaign contributions to Representative Carolyn Maloney (D-NY), an author of the bill, and the company had failed to show any public opposition to the RWA.

In response, thousands of researchers signed a petition to boycott Elsevier publications. Elsevier quickly officially withdrew its support of the RWA, stating “we have heard from some Elsevier journal authors, editors and reviewers who were concerned that the Act seemed inconsistent with Elsevier’s long-standing support for expanding options for free and low-cost public access to scholarly literature.”

Following Elsevier’s withdrawal of support for the Research Works Act, the bill was dropped without a vote.

If You Can’t Beat ‘Em…

Rather than fight the open access movement, both journals and publishers now appear to be adapting.

For example, in 2012 the traditionally closed-access journal Cell created the open access journal, Cell Reports, with a $5,000 “article processing charge (APC),” a fee the scientist must pay to be published.

While some might balk at the high cost to publish in Cell Reports compared to other closed access Cell journals, the journal argued that the high APC was to discourage unnecessary submissions, considering the high submission rate for Cell Press journals.

Many closed-access journals are offering a new option to scientists: publish in the closed-access journal of your choice, and provide your article open access by paying the journal an extra “open access” fee.

For example, authors who publish in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Science (PNAS) can pay $1350 to make their specific article immediately available in an open access format while still publishing in the prestigious journal.

While these hybrid models­ provide the flexibility for scientists to publish in their favorite journals while meeting their open access needs, open access advocates have raised concerns that these journals using the system to “double-dip”—receiving income from both journal subscription fees and the high article processing charges associated with open access.

Publishers’ changing role

As more journals adapt to open access, the publisher’s role as subscription middlemen continues to shrink. However, publishers do much more than negotiate subscription fees, and are also adapting to the changing business environment.

Publishers are more involved in the process of journal management than many might realize. They assist scientific journals in copyediting and formatting content, organizing peer review of articles, printing and binding journal issues, and archiving back-issues, including standardized cross-reference and search information. Like their closed access counterparts, open access journals engage with publishers to develop a final product and disseminate it to scientists around the world.

Even the open access journal PLoS works with other publishers, despite being both open access and a publisher in its own right.

PLoS engages with other publishers on issues like shared infrastructure (for example, Crossref, which provides DOIs object identifiers, a type of electronic signature). Similarly, STM publishers coordinate on discovery platforms, such as search engines,” said PloS’s Marincola.

But in an open access-dominated publishing field, noted Binfield, “definitely there are elements of a publishing company that aren’t necessary anymore.”

It remains to be seen what will happen to this billion-dollar industry. While much of its role may disappear with the advent of open access, there is still room for publishers to adapt to the changing business environment. For the time being, publishers, as well as journals, are making moves toward providing more open access content.

PART 3:  While the open access movement has made progress in making scientific journal content freely available, it isn’t free for everyone involved. Oftentimes, the cost burden simply shifts from the university, in the form of subscriptions, to the author, in the form of article processing charges. In the next installment, we examine pushback against high APCs and how the open access movement continues to evolve.

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

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