Webeditorial 4


Leyna Prince (Medicus International)

Open access: a concept that allows the results of publicly-funded research to be made available online without charge to the reader.

Over the last decade there has been a notable surge in the number of publishers offering open access to one or more of their medical journals. So with more and more journals transitioning to open access, what will the impact be for the more traditional journals, which offer their content through print and online only subscriptions, or by ‘pay per view’ for a particular article? This article discusses the reception that open access publishing has received, as well as the response to this trend by the many long established and respected ‘traditional print’ publishers and journals.

Currently, the most well known, and possibly most well regarded, open access publisher is BioMed Central, which currently offers 207 fully open access journals, many of which have achieved a Journal Citation Reports (JCR) impact factor in recent years. Several other publishing houses, most notably SAGE-Hindawi, also offer a selection of open access journals, and several independent open access journals have been established in recent years, like Open Medicine and the Journal of Medical Internet Research. Despite their differing levels of success, each has very similar mission statement:

“Open access to research is essential in order to ensure the rapid and efficient communication of research findings.”

The open access publishing business model

The traditional business model for scientific publishers relies on restricting access to published research, in order to recoup the costs of the publication process through individual and institutional subscriptions, ‘pay per view’ article download charges, as well as reprint orders and copyright fees for those wishing to reprint or adapt published content. BioMed Central, as well as other open access publishers, claim that this restriction of access “prevents full use being made of digital technologies, and is contrary to the interests of authors, funders and the scientific community as a whole”.

In the absence of any charges for the reader, how do open access journals fund their mission? Although a fraction of their income is made by more traditional means, such as advertising and reprints, the majority is made through the ‘article processing charges’ (APCs) applied to each paper, for which the author, their institution or their sponsor is liable. APCs cover the cost of the publication process, allowing free and immediate access to research articles.

The most common open access publishing model in use considers the publication of research findings as the last phase of the research process, aiming to couple the APC cost associated with open access to research or sponsor publications budgets.

Although most open access publishers/journals state that a waiver of the APC will be considered if the submitting author(s) are unable to pay the fee, the request for a waiver is considered on a case by case basis and the article is not placed into the peer review process until a decision on the waiver request is made. Currently, statistics on how many authors request a waiver, and of these how many are successful in their request is not readily available, although it would be fair to assume that if the research reported in the article has been funded directly by a pharmaceutical company, the publisher/journal is unlikely to be convinced that the same sponsor would not be willing to ‘pick up the tab’. It should be noted, however, that the vast majority of open access publishers/journals automatically waiver their APC for those submitting research from developing or ‘third world’ countries.

The potential benefits of publishing in an online only, open access journal

• In theory, your article should be read by a greater number of individuals than if you had published in an equivalent ‘traditional’ journal (i.e. one with a similar impact factor), since the reader does not need to hold a subscription, or pay for access to your article – they can simply view online or download a PDF of the article

• Your article will likely be published to much quicker timelines – since open access, online-only publishing allows for the publication of an article, with a formal citation, within days of article acceptance (as a non-corrected proof, and within weeks as a corrected, final version). Further, many of these journals have very competitive lead times in place; for example, BioMed Central journals are often able to publish an article online within 6–8 weeks of submission

• Most open access journals do not require copyright to be signed over to the publisher at the time of acceptance, a practice that is almost completely unheard of when publishing with a non-open access journal, and which allows the re-use and re-distribution of articles freely – allowing research to be disseminated more widely, and at no additional cost

And the response from the more ‘traditional’, non-open access journals?

Many of the more ‘traditional’ journals have also embraced the opportunity to increase their reach by not only placing all of their archives online, but also offering novel online-only content and publishing options:

• Posting of supplementary files with certain article types to reinforce the articles content, which can include videos/animations, audio, as well as high resolution images and additional data sets (examples of types of supplementary material posted online can be found on the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA) multimedia page: http://jama.ama-assn.org/misc/multimedia.dtl)

• Podcasts – a growing number of journals offer downloadable podcasts that overview their current issue’s content and, in some case, feature interviews with the lead authors of one or two of the issue’s research articles (the New England Journal of Medicine website features regular content overview and author interview podcasts, which can also be subscribed to using iTunes: http://content.nejm.org/misc/podcast.dtl)

• Video/audio abstracts – comparable to the format of the podcast, the video/audio abstract usually takes the form of an interview with the lead author of the article, who is filmed or recorded providing an overview of their study and its finding. Video files are usually only viewable through the journal website, however, audio abstracts are often downloadable in an MP3 format (Gastroenterology regularly feature video abstracts, in addition to podcasts: http://www.gastrojournal.org/content/video_abstracts_collection)

• Over recent years, in order to more effectively compete with online only and open access journals, almost all of the ‘traditional’ journals have implemented ‘online early’ or ‘epub’ processes – with articles published online within weeks of acceptance, with a unique digital identification number (or DOI), allowing the paper to be formally cited, without the need to assign an official print volume (and issue) number and page range

• E-issues/E-journals – with research submissions at an all time high and a ‘back-log’ of articles awaiting print publication becoming increasingly common, many journals have opted to ease the burden placed on the print production side of their business by offering submitting authors the option to publish online only, as an e-journal article. In addition, several journals have gone much further, for example, BJU International has a separate website editorial team that handles content submitted purely for consideration for posting to the journal website. The journal has an evolving database of ‘exclusive web content’, the vast majority of which is open access, including case studies: http://www.bjui.org/ContentFullItem.aspx?id=472&SectionType=1

• Online open – it is now possible through several of the major publishing houses, including Wiley, Elsevier and SAGE, to opt to pay a one-off fee on acceptance to have the article made freely available on the journal website. However, fees associated with the ‘online open’ option are often far higher than the APCs of open access journals

• Several journals, including The Lancet, now have a bookmarking feature on their websites, meaning that articles/content may be posted by the reader to various social networking and blogging sites, including Facebook, Twitter, reddit and Delicious. Further, although not as common, some journals have also enabled a comment box feature alongside it’s content, i.e. after reading an article on the journal website, you can submit your thoughts on the findings directly below the article – other readers will be able to view your comments and respond.

It should be noted that many of the open access journals also offer the publishing options described above. Further, many of the non-open access journals have started to offer online-only subscriptions and the ‘pay per view’ article download option. Several publishers/journals have also started to post details of their online circulation, most notably Elsevier, who now provide, for some of their higher tier journals, monthly article download figures.

In addition, several ‘traditional’ journals now offer their archived content (e.g. articles over 24 months old) open access, as well as allowing free access to feature articles, for example case studies, editorials or an ‘Editors pick’ research article.

The future of open access publishing

An EU-funded study – The Study of Open Access Publishing (SOAP) − is currently ongoing to establish which open access [business] model is the most effective, with the general aim of encouraging more publishers to make the transition from the ‘traditional’ publishing model to an open access model, based on their findings and recommendations (http://project-soap.eu/). The study is due to complete in February 2011.

Overall, the SOAP project intends to gather information, generate data and create knowledge that will enhance the search for further innovation in digital publishing in Europe, so that researchers will reap the benefits of these innovations and publishers will better understand market opportunities.”

Furthermore, the study will investigate research and industry opinion toward open access journals through a large scale survey. Since some of the main barriers to uptake of open access publishing by academic institutions, pharmaceutical sponsors and researchers include the APCs as well as respectability, the findings of this study may go a long way to helping current and future open access publishers take the steps needed to shift perception and truly fulfil their mission statements.

In light of the fact that the level of medical research being conducted continues to increase year on year, with a subsequent rise in the number of submissions being made to peer reviewed journals, open access publishing as a concept is noble and forward-thinking. However, the reception that open access journals have received has been mixed, and further work will need to be done to convince academia and industry of the potential added value that open access publishing can bring.