Monday, July 23, 2012

Open Publishing FAQ

Journals on shelf iStock_000008730651XSmallby Pat Cotey

Publishing in so many business sectors is struggling to find a new working business model. Scientific journals are no exception. Adding to the problem, scientific publishing is no longer best serving its readers. Scholarly journals were started as a means of disseminating scientific findings to interested scholars. At the time, it was the best and most economical means to share knowledge and new research.  Below are some answers to frequently asked questions about online, open access publishing.

How does the current system work?

When a scientist publishes in a journal, he is foregoing his copyrights to have the publisher print his findings. He is not compensated for publishing or peer reviewing (field specialists edit and review drafts to insure original research, review research methods, check for inconsistencies, clarity, etc.) a colleague’s article. This sounds unfair, but in many ways, scientific publishing is akin to submitting a report to your boss in other industries. Scientific articles are part of the job, included in a researcher’s salary. Compensation for a peer review would be a significant conflict of interest. Currently, publishers profit from the journals, not scientists.

How do journal subscriptions hurt science?

Subscription fees are rising quickly and universities, libraries, and research labs are tightening their belts to control fees. Subscription prices in the UK increased over 200% in the past ten years (1). As reported in The Guardian, Harvard University is billed $3.5 million dollars per year by journal publishers. These fees are limiting access by scholars as facilities have to go without needed journals to meet budgets.As scientists, we access journals through our institutions or libraries and don’t always think about the associated costs, until we are denied access. Journal publishing is a closed market with no pressure from the scientists who contribute and use these resources to make any changes, as the users aren’t typically paying directly for the service.

Is there an open access publishing model that is sustainable?

The Wellcome Trust, one of the largest providers of non-governmental scientific funding worldwide, commissioned two research studies in the scientific publishing sector. Firstly, they wanted to understand the economics of the publishing industry. Secondly, they wanted to explore alternative business models that “could enable research to have the quality assurance it needs (peer review), while using the Web as the publication medium and being available for free”(2). 

Looking at different business models for producing journals, the Trust first concluded that open access journals are better than traditional journal models for improving access to research. Traditional journal models profit by selling subscriptions to universities, schools and libraries. There are other “access tolls” such as site licenses and pay-per-view that add to the revenue stream. An open access journal model charges the author to publish and distributes the journal for free.

By charging researchers a fee to cover expenses for peer review, journal production, online hosting and archiving, an open access publishing model is sustainable. These fees can often be paid through research grants, waived in some cases and discounted through member affiliations. It is the variable costs of traditional publishing models (subscription management, license negotiations, sales, marketing and distribution) that are significantly reduced in the open access model.  

The Trust researched comparative costs of producing a good quality journal using the current subscription model and found an average cost of US $2750 to produce an article.  Using an author-side payment model, the associated cost to produce an article was US $1950. More study details are available in the article authored by Robert Terry (3).

 Does Open Access signal the end of scientific publishing?

No, open access journals still need publishers.  Some journals are experimenting with a mixed access model where the journal is printed and published and, six months later, the article is made available electronically. The oversight of peer reviews, formatting, archiving and added search capabilities are still required in print and online publishing. Full web integration requires functionality in the searchable repository of articles and creates the need for increased curating of online journals. There is no doubt that some tweaks and modifications will be encountered as scientific publishing moves toward an open access online publishing model.

Is online publishing better then print publishing?

With internet access, there is no longer a primary need to print and mail journals to libraries and institutions around the world.  In fact, this process is more costly, time consuming and less efficient than other publishing models.  A journal that is fully integrated with the web offers additional benefits and unsurpassed accessibility to all users.  Online publishing allows linking to sources, interactive content such as graphs, videos and even interactive programs.

You guys love to talk about Open Science. How does FastFig fit in?

FastFig will be an openly available repository of scientific equations built so that those equations can be used easily and immediately.  While the repository will not be peer reviewed, FastFig will be an important tool for better integrating scientific publications into the web and a forum for discussion about scientific modeling.



1. LISU (2002) LISU annual library statistics 2002. Leicestershire: LISU.

2. Wellcome Trust (2004 April) Costs and business models in scientific research publishing: A report commissioned by the Wellcome Trust. Available:​84.pdf. Accessed 19 January 2005.

3. Terry R (2005) Funding the Way to Open Access. PLoS Biol 3(3): e97. doi:10.1371/journal.pbio.0030097

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