When was the last time you searched online to find the answer to a question? Odds are you are one of the hundreds of millions of people who do this every day. Whether you’re trying to find the closest café with a great cappuccino or the chemical structure of caffeine, you can easily satisfy your curiosity online—usually for free.
In today’s open, digital world, it’s surprising that the overwhelming majority of information contained in the scientific literature is not freely available online. The scientific literature is both an important repository of knowledge and a vibrant forum where the scientific community reaches consensus on the answers to difficult questions. Many of the findings contained in this literature have clear implications that reach beyond the scientific community to society at large, like those related to climate change and the impending energy crisis. However, access to this information is mostly restricted to a select few who pay for the privilege.
Scientific articles, the fundamental units of the scientific literature, are written by scientists and published in one of a large collection of journals and magazines. These journals and magazines are generally run by either a for-profit publishing company or a scientific society. Most of these entities make money by charging for access to articles through subscriptions, which are primarily paid for by university libraries that then provide access to students and faculty. “The way I describe it to students is that researchers on campuses do research, they then give that research away to publishers, and we buy it back from them,” says Beth Weil, head librarian of the Marian Koshland Bioscience and Natural Resources Library at UC Berkeley. “That is the primary paradigm of scholarly publishing.”
In recent years, the sustainability of this model of scholarly publishing has come into question. Meanwhile, a growing number of scientists are starting to publish their articles in open access journals, where authors pay publishing fees and subsequent online access to the research is free. During the last decade, this idea of open access publishing has evolved from an egalitarian ideal to a profitable business model which is now being adopted by many of the publishing companies that were once its staunchest critics.
Questioning the status quo
In the last ten years, there have been a number of high-profile disputes between publishing companies and university libraries over licensing fees for subscription-based journals. In 2010, the University of California was asked to pay well over a million dollars— four times what they were already paying—for access to a subset of the journals published by the Nature Publishing Group (NPG). The dispute, “highlighted for both sides the serious need to find sustainable paths for scholarly publishing and scholarly communications, because clearly we are not on a sustainable path,” says Ivy Anderson, Director of Collection Development and Management at the California Digital Library (CDL).
Publishers argue that the increased research output and corresponding number of paper submissions and publications have led to dramatically rising costs. The problem is that library budgets worldwide, which fund the majority of journal subscriptions, have been consistently shrinking. “So you have increasing research output, increasing research dollars, and decreasing funding of library budgets in institutions,” Anderson explains. The University of California has felt the effects of this particularly acutely due to ongoing state budget cuts, but the picture is qualitatively the same around the world.
With the advent of site licensing, journals also began to see declines in personal and print subscriptions, further compounding the revenue problem as advertisers have grown even less likely to pay for ads in magazines and journals with lower print subscription rates. “Publishers have looked to libraries and institutions to make up their revenue shortfall,” says Anderson.
As publishing revenue sources have dried up alongside library budgets, Anderson argues, “We really need a range of new techniques and publishing structures to address the problem.” Open access publishing has the potential to form a large part of the solution to this crisis, a fact not lost on Harold Varmus, Patrick Brown, and Michael Eisen when they launched the Public Library of Science (PLoS) in 2000 and helped usher the open access publishing movement into the spotlight.
A public library of science
The story of PLoS begins with a research question. As a postdoctoral fellow in Pat Brown’s lab at Stanford in the late 1990s, current UC Berkeley molecular and cell biology professor Michael Eisen was analyzing data from genomic experiments looking at how gene expression patterns changed with cell behavior. In the past, people had done this with at most tens of genes at a time, but using new technology, Eisen and Brown were looking at many thousands of genes at once. The researchers were struggling to relate what was known in the literature to what they were observing in their experiments. “We were shifting from doing experiments on a small scale, where it was possible to know everything about the genes involved and the experiment we were doing, to a world where not even Pat, who has a photographic memory, could remember or even know every piece of relevant information,” says Eisen.
They tried all sorts of ways of getting around the problem, but it quickly became clear that they needed to write some kind of program that could scan through the literature to find and organize relevant information. It just so happened that theywere thinking about this when journals were starting to be published electronically. It also happened that the service doing the electronic publishing for most of the society journals at the time, HighWire, was basically part of the Stanford library, just down the road from the lab. “We felt that we could just go down there with a disk and ask them for all their papers. They would give them to us, and then we would be able to do all this cool stuff,” Eisen says. “So we went down there, and they basically said, ‘No, we own this stuff, and you can’t use these papers.’”
Following this startling rebuff, Brown and Eisen became interested in the public, openly-accessible system used by the physics community, called arXiv. They started a conversation with Paul Ginsparg, arXiv’s founder and professor of theoretical physics at Cornell University. From this conversation, Brown and Eisen began with the idea to clone arXiv for biologists, but even then they had some reservations about their idea. “We realized that if the publication forum was totally dissociated from the institutions that dominate biomedical research, as it is with arXiv and the dominant physics institutions, it was never going to work,” says Eisen. “Where things were published was way more important to biologists.”
Brown and Eisen then teamed up with Harold Varmus, director of the National Institutes of Health (NIH) at the time, along with a couple of other key people, to develop a plan for the NIH to run a freely accessible repository where all biomedical research papers could be posted not just for reading, but also for unrestricted reuse. This latter feature would allow researchers to perform their own analyses with previously published work. “Harold proposed this to the funding agency, and because it was the NIH, it had to go out for comment and review,” says Eisen. “And it got eviscerated. Not just by the commercial publishers one would have expected, but by all of the non-profit societies, who, despite notionally representing science, are actually utterly dependent on the revenue from their journals for survival.”
After the failure of their NIH proposal, Brown, Eisen and collaborators initiated a petition in the form of an open letter urging publishers to allow the articles that appeared in their journals to be distributed freely by independent, online public libraries within six months of their publication. The scientists who signed the letter pledged to only publish in and review for journals that complied with these demands, after a deadline of September 1st, 2001. “The open letter was hugely successful,” Eisen says, alluding to the more than 30,000 signatures they received from scientists all over the world. “We thought it was very effective, but ultimately it didn’t work.” September 1st came and went, and nothing really changed. “We had argued for this open access model, where instead of having paid subscriptions, authors pay to publish,” Eisen says. “The logic of the model was clear, we thought, but almost nobody believed it would work. So finally we realized that we had to just try and prove them wrong, and we were never going to have a chance if we worked within the existing publishing world.” And just like that, the idea of PLoS as a publisher was conceived.
Rise of open access
The point of starting PLoS, Eisen explains, was to show that a successful publishing company could be based on an open access model. “The founders of PLoS had hoped that people would embrace open access just because it’s the right thing to do, but we eventually realized that we first had to show them it worked.” In the beginning, PLoS was not alone in trying to illustrate the viability of the open access model. BioMed Central, the brainchild of entrepreneur Vitek Tracz, was actually the first open access science publisher. Since these early days PLoS has grown significantly and has had a major impact on the publishing landscape.
One of PLoS’s most successful journals is PLoS One. In 2006, the journal published a mere 138 articles, but the last four years have seen dramatic growth; in 2010, PLoS One published 6,749 articles, making it the world’s largest peer-reviewed journal. In the beginning, PLoS was funded by grants from a number of foundations, but the company has now reached the point where it is selfsustaining. “PLoS One volume goes up every month and the community journals, like PLoS Genetics, are doing well. PLoS Biology and PLoS Medicine still require an investment but we are making enough on the other journals to sustain them,” explains Eisen.
PLoS One’s rapid growth has not gone unnoticed by other publishers, many of whom are now in the process of launching similar open access journals. In January 2011, NPG launched Scientific Reports, whose stated scope and purpose are almost identicalto those of PLoS One. In the latter half of 2010 and early 2011, a range of similar announcements were made by many publishing companies and scientific societies including The British Medical Journal, the American Institute of Physics, and the Genetics Society of America. There are also many primarily subscription-based hybrid journals that give authors the option of paying an open access fee to make their articles freely available online. “The fact that Nature and many other publishers are emulating PLoS is the great validation of what we’ve been saying for ten years,” Eisen says.
There is, however, a subtle but important difference between the open access provided by more traditional publishing companies and that provided by PLoS. Many of the former place strict limitations on the use of articles through their licensing. PLoS’s license, on the other hand, allows the unrestricted use of the contents of a paper as long as its authors are acknowledged. Restrictions through licensing are widespread and generally allow viewing of the material but restrict reuse.
However, the original motivation that kickstarted PLoS was Eisen’s and Brown’s inability to use the data in published work for their own analyses. As Eisen explains, “We had hoped that once the literature was available for people to access and manipulate, they would perform exciting new analyses. Unfortunately, that remains inhibited still by the unwillingness of the publishers to let go of their control over the papers.”
What are the costs?
A 2008 Research Information Network report conducted by Cambridge Economic Policy Associates looked in detail at the costs involved in journals’ publishing processes in the UK. It estimates the total cash cost of publishing the average journal article is $4,625. This breaks down to $840 in profit, $1,835 associated with producing the first copy of the article including managing peer review and editing, $982 associated with distribution, and $972 for publisher overheads. Subscription-based journals recover some of the costs by charging page or color charges. For example, Nature Publishing Group charges $1,210 for the first color figure and $432 for each additional color figure in a letter published in Nature. The rest come from advertising revenue, subscriptions, and site licenses.
The initial cost of publishing in an open access journal tends to be higher than publishing in a subscription-based journal. PLoS, for example, charges between $1,350 and $2,900 per article. BioMed Central, another open access publisher based in the UK, charges up to $1,875 per article. Hybrid journals tend to be more expensive, with some charging as much as $5,000 to make an article freely available online.
Regardless of where the work is published, doing the science that goes into a scientific publication is the dominant cost, requiring significant personnel, equipment, and monetary resources. Estimates of the average cost of the scientific investigations that go into producing an article range between $150,000 and $300,000.
Challenges for the new paradigm
Although the move to open access publishing has great potential, it still faces several serious challenges. As open access publishing becomes more widely adopted, a shift is occurring in who pays for publishing and providing access to articles. Instead of library budgets covering a large fraction of the costs and authors contributing to a lesser extent, the authors are now shouldering the entire financial burden. The money that pays for this will have to come primarily from research grants.
To publish a paper in an open access journal costs several thousand dollars; even though this is typically just a small fraction of the cost of doing the science itself, that cost is not insignificant. If funding bodies do not take the added publication costs into account, the amount of money available for research will decline. Furthermore, the variable amount of grant money available across different scientific disciplines could create a disparity in the ability to publish depending on one’s scientific field. PLoS does have a policy of waiving the publication fee for people who can show that they really cannot afford it, and there are a number of institutional funding sources that have been set up to provide similar assistance. But it remains unknown how big a disparity might exist in an open publishing world.
Anderson points out that having this shift in who pays for publishing an article could actually streamline things. “Part of the open access experiment is seeing if you achieve more sustainability by placing the economic transaction where the true market relationship is, between the publisher and the author,” she says. In open access publishing, the library is removed as the middleman between the authors and the publisher, allowing authors to decide where to publish based on how much a journal charges to publish an article and what services it provides the author in return. This in turn provides a clear and direct incentive for publishers to provide value for the costs they charge for publishing.
There are many researchers for whom the additional cost associated with publishing in open access journals is insignificant and who have a definite interest in maximizing the accessibility of their research. So what is preventing these scientists from publishing in open access journals? In a word: prestige. In the current system, the perceived worth of a paper is largely dependent on which journal publishes it. The scientific literature currently consists of a hierarchy of journals, where journals that accept only a small fraction of submissions sit at the top and those that publish most submissions are at the bottom.
The current belief is that the top journals, being far more selective, are only publishing the “best science”: that which the editors and reviewers believe will have the highest impact. Therefore, where a paper is published is vital and the stakes are high—the perceived worth of a study and the scientists who performed it depend on it. David Hoole from NPG says this is why the journals at the top of this hierarchy are best served bya subscription-based system. “Highly selective ‘top-tier journals’ have high circulations, even larger numbers of readers, and relatively few authors,” he says. “In such circumstances, it seems fairer to spread the costs across the large number of readers, rather than the much smaller number of authors.”
Most open access journals do tend to have lower rejection rates—PLoS One, for example, publishes around 70 percent of the submitted papers—putting them far down on the totem pole within the current paradigm. Thus, some scientists hesitate to publish in a journal like PLoS One because there is a sense that not everything published in the journal is necessarily great science. However, the disparity in acceptance rates between PLoS One and say, Nature, actually results from a different philosophy when judging the worth of a scientific paper. PLoS One will publish a paper if the work is novel and technically sound. Nature judges these factors as well, but places much more weight on a subjective assessment of the perceived impact of the work as determined by their editors and several scientists whom they ask to review the paper.
The open access community argues that the broader scientific community does a much better job of assessing the importance of a paper after publication than a handful of scientists working with journal editors before publication. Indeed, there are a number of high profile cases where Nobel Prize-winning work was rejected by journals like Nature, suggesting that maybe the PLoS philosophy is correct. In particular, Nature rejected the ground-breaking work on photosynthesis by Johann Deisenhofer, Robert Huber, and Hartmut Michel, as well as Hideki Yukawa’s theoretical work on the existence of mesons.
The publishing world ahead
Once considered a small movement among scientists, open access publishing has become a significant part of the academic publishing landscape. Despite the challenges it faces, many signs are pointing towards open access journals playing a much larger role in the future of scholarly publishing. It is too early to predict how all these changes in publishing will influence scientific research, but many are hopeful that they will facilitate future discoveries by enabling open sharing of information and allowing new and powerful analyses of published works. With the prospective opening of the science literature, in the near future anyone with internet access and a strong sense of curiosity will be privy to the latest scientific discoveries and have unrestricted access to much more of humankind’s scientific knowledge than ever before.