Open Access – what’s in it for me?

Today is Open Access Day1, intended to broaden awareness and understanding of Open Access. Many science bloggers have written about Open Access today,and links to a lot of these blog posts have been collected by Bora Zivkovic2 or are found in the FriendFeed room set up for the day3. The purchase of Biomed Central – the largest Open Access publisher – by Springer announced last week4, and the announcement of the Open Access Scholarly Publishers Association (OASPA) today5 are strong signs that Open Access has grown up and is no longer new and experimental. This is probably a good time to give a personal report on the role of Open Access in my own work, and obviously that perspective is very different from the perspective of a journal publisher or a patient advocate6. I wish that more of the discussion would be about practical benefits or disadvantages for the people involved, rather than using the sometimes “religious” arguments for or against Open Access.

Do I have access to the papers I want to read?
I am in the priviledged situation to work for a university hospital with institutional subscriptions to most journals I need. From the 10 journals I read the most (measured by the number of PDFs stored in the program Papers7), one journal is open access (The Oncologist), three additional journals allow free acces after 6-12 months (PNAS, Cancer Research and Blood) and one journal is only available through my private subscription (Nature Clinical Practice Oncology). I would guess that I have access to about 95% of the fulltext papers I want to read.

Can other people read my publications?
I've blogged about this before8, and little has changed in the 6 months since that post. Looking at my last 5 papers, only one of them is freely available (because the journal allows free access after 12 months), and for one of them even my own institution doesn't have access. Good publications are still critical to advance my career, so publishing in “good” journals is more important to me than publishing in journals where as many people as possible can read my papers – and most people interested in my work probably also work in institutions with fulltext access. The citation advantage of Open Access papers would be an incentive to publish in Open Access journals, but to me that question still remains unanswered9. I currently have limited research funding, so an Author-pays fee is a hurdle for me. I was coauthor of one paper this year that really should have been Open Access. It is a detailed guideline on how to treat patients with testicular cancer and should have been made freely available.

Where do I need more Open Access?
Most research never gets published and there are many good reasons why that is so. But the situation is different for clinical research involving the treatment of patients. A clinical trial not only costs a lot of money, but is also potentially harmful to a patient. For these reasons clinical trials need approval by institutional review boards and other institutions before they are even started, acting as a sort of peer review at the beginning. And the desired endpoint for a clinical trial is not necessarily a publication, but rather the approval of a new drug. A recent PLoS Medicine paper found that only 43% of the clinical trials used for approval of drugs by the American Food and Drug Administration (FDA) were later published10. And many other clinical trials with negative results not even appear in the documents submitted for drug approval, meaning that these data are lost forever. This so-called publication bias creates many problems, and is unfortunately encouraged my most journals. Fortunately this situation has recently changed. Clinical trials must be registered in public databases since 2005, and since last month the main results also have to be published in the public database once the trial has been completed11.

fn1. Open Access Day

fn2. Open Access Day – the blog posts

fn3. Open Access Day FriendFeed Room

fn4. Open access publisher BioMed Central sold to Springer

fn5. Open Access Scholarly Publishers Association

fn6. Why I am an OA Advocate

fn7. Interview with Alexander Griekspoor

fn8. Public Access Week: Who could read my papers?

fn9. Article downloads and citations of open access papers

fn10. PLoS Medicine 2008 doi:10.1371/journal.pmed.0050191

fn11. FDAAA: Push to open data in clinical medicine

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29 Responses to Open Access – what’s in it for me?

  1. Zhiming Wang says:

    Hi Martin, excellent post. Check your link #4 though.

  2. Joerg Heber says:

    Hi Martin
    Good arguments and concerns regarding open access. I suppose initially the premise of the subscription-based model was that most university libraries could afford subscriptions to all relevant journals, so that access never really was a problem.
    Nowadays, with tight budgets and an inflation in journal titles (particular the archival ones), managing access I suppose is a real issue, and so is the change in medium, where everything shifts from print to instant online access.
    Now, of course readership should of course be as broad as possible, and it might be useful to take a look at business models here.
    Open access means that authors pay a publication fee, effectively shifting the revenue source from an average fee for all institutions to a model where the scientifically more prolific places pay more than e..g teaching institutions. That might work well for the Harvards of this world, but we should realize that some places would be worse of – and as you mention you yourself are a victim of this.
    Also, regarding readership, it should be noted that Nature is providing “free access”: to many of its journal across the developing world. (I found the link on Google, there might be an official press release somewhere too). Googling also shows that other publishers such as the Royal Society of Chemistry do the same.
    However, although Nature certainly is making an effort to broaden access in a fair way, I am not sure how an author pays model would work for us (and I am certainly not involved in any in-house discussions on this issue, this is just my personal reckoning here). A typical Nature journal publishes only a few papers in each issue, far less than archival journals. For now let’s assume similar production costs because although we publish fewer pages overall there is a lot of money going into value creation such as highly qualified editors and subediting of papers. This would mean that if one of our journal publishes only 10% the number of papers of a related archival journal, the author fees would also be 10 times higher! That doesn’t seem all that feasible to me.
    I am not sure how the future of publishing will look like, but my feeling is that if we want to change the library system significantly, we also have to change the journal system significantly. We might still end up with high-profile publications such as Nature (simply for the kind of quality control we do, and the visibility we provide for groundbreaking new science), but I am not sure we need such a huge number of archival journals, versus a few really large open-access deposits for archival papers.
    Just my two rather unstructured cents…

  3. Martin Fenner says:

    There are many interesting and important topics to discuss here. Unfortunately this is usually not possible, as you have to be either for or against Open Access. And efforts like “PRISM”: or the language used in the Nature News article “PLoS stays afloat with bulk publishing”: have made matters only worse.
    Assuming that we want to continue with having journals and journal papers (I do), there should be a way to pay for this. Many people forget that it’s not only author pays vs. reader pays. A science librarian could explain this much better, but we have all kinds of package deals where a library or group of libraries negotiates a subscription or author pays fee for dozens of journals with a publisher. And I still don’t understand how the author pays model could work for a journal with a 90% rejection rate.

  4. Joerg Heber says:

    exactly my point, an author pays model is very difficult for journals that publish few papers such as Nature Materials. I also understand your point about bundled subscriptions, and that this is happening already. The Max-Planck Society has a complete deal with us for all their institutes. Of course that brings prices down (and although they fought their battles already with Elsevier and Springer, not with us recently…)
    But I would say it would be foolish to be fixed on an opinion from a commercial point of view. Suppose subscriptions go down significantly or high author fess somehow get accepted, or the like, why not switch the publishing model as long as it is roughly revenue neutral? Or do you envision overall cheaper publication costs?
    Anyway, I agree that any debate should be held constructively…

  5. steffi suhr says:

    Martin, thanks for the post with a ‘practical’ perspective! I think it also shows quite clearly that the extent to which Open Access is carried through would ultimately also depend on the discipline, as in your case, where critical data on clinical trials and patient care should be widely available.
    I just want to (please bear with me) repeat what has been said so many times before in so many different places… but is still being overlooked in so many others: publication of scientific articles has inherent costs, for handling manuscripts, editing, formatting, typesetting, and printing. All of these require a certain amount of training and expertise. This – the production – of scientific journals is the ‘service’ publishers sell. Is it possible to simply see publication costs as part of the cost of doing science? And I am not defending enormous profit margins here – that’s a different matter!
    Narrowing down the possible business models too much (i.e.: ‘everyone do it like PLoS’) might diminish the current diversity in publishing, since that model – I think – would be sustainable only for a very limited number of outlets. There’s only so much money to go around for donations and in subsidies. John Wilbanks made a similar statement on his blog “back in July”: I think that keeping the author-purchased Open Access option in parallel would, for the most part, help to retain the current diversity of big and small(!) publishers – and quality – in publishing. Most publishers already offer this option; I believe most of them are listed as ‘hybrid journals’ in (among other places) the “directory of open access journals”:
    As you point out, the money to purchase the Open Access option has to come from somewhere. Maybe there should be an amount budgeted for this up front in research grants? This would shift the cost from libraries purchasing subscriptions to a selection of (the biggest/highest IF) journals to the research funding agencies, which is not a trivial change in the way current science budgets are put together in most countries and would take some getting used to on that end. This option might even promote diversity in publishing, since in this case, the author could freely choose which journal to publish in – without considerations of which journal is the most subscribed to (by libraries) in their field.
    A ‘submission fee’ would have to be thought through very thoroughly, though. Would that not lead to authors primarily submitting to high IF journals, to the detriment of smaller publications?

  6. steffi suhr says:

    Sorry, I just re-read my entry, and it reads as if John Wilbanks talked about diversity in publishing. I was actually referring to these statments:
    _But we have to explore the business models that can operate on top of the open publishing system._
    _We have to expect business model experimentation, both for-profit and non-profit, in OA._

  7. Martin Fenner says:

    _Maybe there should be an amount budgeted for this up front in research grants?_
    As an author I would of course love it if more funding agencies include the money for the author pays option in their grants. Like the “Wellcome Trust”:
    Self-archiving (green OA) is of course another option to make your papers publicly available. But I found several difficulties “when I explored this option”: Ideally, your published paper should be deposited in a central repository by the publisher, and this is how it works for NIH-funded research and PubMed Central. But we don’t have a central repository in Germany. This not only means more work for the author, but also makes it more difficult to find your paper.
    But we shouldn’t forget that the move to Open Access has achieved something very important. “The profit margins of the largest STM publishers”: indicate that we need competition with and alternatives to the traditional journal publishers.

  8. Richard P. Grant says:

    If I was a shareholder in one of those publishers I think I’d be quite pleased, thankyouverymuch.
    Free market economy, Martin. If you want a quality product, you pay for it.
    bq. _A ‘submission fee’ would have to be thought through very thoroughly, though. Would that not lead to authors primarily submitting to high IF journals, to the detriment of smaller publications?_
    um, that assumes that the high IF journals can or want to print everything they receive for publication… obviously ‘author-pays’ only works on acceptance of an article. Not all work is high IF, or of general interest. And most authors know this at time of submission, I’d wager.
    Smaller journals could compete on price terms, maybe? (And see the IUCR’s “report”: to the House of Commons special committee).
    Publishing costs money. Period. You want copy-editing, manuscript handling, readable PDFs—you’re going to have to _pay_. The author can pay, or the reader can. Choose.

  9. steffi suhr says:

    Hey Richard – the submission fee was somewhat of an ongoing topic and involved (at least that’s the model I was talking about) both a submission fee for all manuscripts and a publishing fee for accepted articles.
    Smaller journals with a lower impact factor would probably not be able to charge such a fee. Thinking this through, they would then have to recover all costs from authors with accepted manuscripts (which would be expensive for whoever gets published, and more expensive if the journal has a high rejection rate), in turn probably leading to lower manuscript submission numbers. Would that not lead to accepting ‘anything’ and ultimately drive the quality down? Anyway, it’s a thought experiment at best at this stage.
    _Not all work is high IF, or of general interest. And most authors know this at time of submission, I’d wager._
    hmm. Don’t you ever find yourself thinking ‘I’ll just submit this to (high IF journal) X and see what happens – I _think_ it’s good enough’?
    _Smaller journals could compete on price terms, maybe?_
    Do you mean just be cheaper? Don’t forget that small companies tend to have a little less leeway if it came to staking it out in a ‘price war’. They tend to have to convince with quality.

  10. Richard P. Grant says:

    It’s an interesting thought experiment, certainly. Perhaps the little journals will be swallowed up by -Elsevier- the bigger ones? I don’t mean they’ll disappear, just be part of a larger stable. If the parent company maintains an OA policy, would that be a bad thing?

  11. steffi suhr says:

    In the interest of diversity: yes.

  12. Richard P. Grant says:

    How so?
    (Assume editorial independence. Show your working).

  13. Heather Etchevers says:

    @Richard: Isn’t that what “Springer has done”: ? I don’t think it’s a bad thing if the business models do indeed remain distinct.
    @Martin – great post, as usual. My institution has implemented a self-archiving thing, which I have begun to use although it is long and more painful than the PMC equivalent if you have NIH funding. Some older publications of mine ended up in PMC anyhow because of the publisher’s policy that after 6 months or a year, it should be there. For those articles of yours that are old and you have no more drafts, you could make your own distillation of your PDF, add in a link to the pay-view original article, and make that downloadable from your institutional page of publications? It’s sort of local self-archiving, but a determined person could possibly find it by simple Google search. Then again, do people really hold back from simply asking for a reprint from the author? (No, but sometimes those authors are unreachable at old e-mail addresses or don’t answer.)

  14. steffi suhr says:

    Editorial independence is a given. However, in my (previous) experience working for a huge corporation: regardless of how much your ‘local’ business model may differ and have different needs than the rest of the company.. corporate politics and the bottom line have a good chance of seeping through. In contrast, my current employer does many things that would never be possible under a larger umbrella – including offering three of our journals with completely free OA (and that means: no author fees, no subsidies, and no ads!).
    I think there may be some confusion between scientific merit and the *production* side of scientific publications?

  15. Richard P. Grant says:

    Heather, indeed.
    Steffi, _I’m_ not confusing scientific merit and production. There are different levels of scientific merit, and places for niche journals (as the IUCR points out). What I’m saying is that evil publishing megaglomerates might find it in their financial and social interests to run niche journals _at a loss_ but supported by superstars. Kind of like PLoS 1 is doing…

  16. Martin Fenner says:

    It is interesting that one simple business model is not really used for scientific papers: pay per article. Using the model from music and the successfull iTunes store, it would be interesting to think about how this would change current practices.
    But the model favored by the NIH seems to be the direction we are heading: free access after 6-12 months.

  17. Brian Derby says:

    I think pay per article would lead to big problems. The business model in the music industry is to find the few artists who sell the majority of the music and generate the profits for the labels. To maintain the star status require considerable marketing skill by their agents and the studio A&R people once signed.
    The current mode in scientific publishing defines the star as the journal (Nature and Science slug it out for no. 1). Libraries are prepared to pay for the best journals because they hope to filter out the best papers for their readers. Pay per article would encourage publishers to publish many fewer articles but to promote those very heavily.

  18. Graham Steel says:

    _But the model favored by the NIH seems to be the direction we are heading: free access after 6-12 months._
    I couldn’t agree more, Martin.
    The current 12 month delay is my no means ideal, but it’s a heck of a lot better than no access. A 6 month delay is something that most would settle for. The majority of research is most sought after during that period so TA publishers revenue is unlikely to be compromised.

    Yesterday, I spotted the Royal Society Publishings’ EXiS (Excellence in Science) Open Choice which I blogged about “here”:
    The costs of their OA option seems on a par with similar related schemes elsewhere.

  19. Henry Gee says:

    There is more to the open-access idea than the inherent cost of selecting and producing papers. There’s an issue of time-sensitivity, too. Because of competition, it’s important to many scientists to publish papers as quickly as possible – and also to know what their competitors are up to.
    So, yes, make all papers open to all after a period of (say) 6 months. But instead of keeping the paper as pay-per-view at the same (subscription) rate before that, there should be a graded series of prices for non-subscribers – the less time that has elapsed since publication, the more you’d have to pay for it.
    I offer this model by analogy with access to stock prices. Up-to-the-minute access to stock prices costs a fortune. But wait a few minutes, and anyone can get them on their iPhone.

  20. Maxine Clarke says:

    Open Access is a publishing model – author pays, with offsets (eg, some funders pay the fee for their employees).
    Subscription journals are another publishing model – reader pays (and similarly, subscription fees are waived for poorer parts of the world: Joerg, every web page of links at the foot to these partners of NPG).
    It would be a lot better in my mind if people saw these for what they are, publishing models, and stopped trying to take the high moral ground. There are far more important things to write about in these times when science is under threat in all directions.
    Martin, you link to an undiplomatically phrased but factually accurate news story in Nature, but there are plenty of unpleasant articles and editorials in Open Access journals, to which you do not link. Why not? I’m not going to provide these mean-spirited articles with the oxygen of links here, but there was one editorial which attacked NPG’s open access journal Molecular Systems Biology because the journal elected to let its authors choose one of two types of Creative Commons licence; and there was an essay published recently (picked up by the Economist) about an “economic” theory of publishing that was embarrassingly ignorant about the process as well as full of logical holes, I wonder if it was peer-reviewed or read by anyone with independent, intelligent thought before it was published.
    This mud-slinging but it is so unnecessary: all these mostly mindless slogans people espouse are often based on personal experiences and prejudices rather than any actual knowledge or research about the publishing process.

  21. Henry Gee says:

    Well said, Maxine. I have found that a lot of the hot air one reads stems from a wilful ignorance of the conventional subscriber-pays publishing model. Wilful, because when one tries to lay it on the line, and tell it like it is, with honesty and (one hopes) authority, based on actual knowledge rather than prejudice, one is either vilified or ignored. There are some people who seem to _like_ being ignorant, and cannot bear the idea that someone might come along and resolve their grievances — as if grievance gives them justification for existence.

  22. Martin Fenner says:

    Maxine, I tried to have a “practical” discussion (from the perspective of a paper reader and sometimes author) about Open Access and avoid the moral high ground. Maybe this is impossible. The “article in the BMJ”: about citation counts of Open Access articles by Philip Davis is a good example. It is one of the best published studies on the topic so far, because it was a randomized controlled trial. Some of the discussion (e.g. in the link provided) is very interesting, but there is also a lot of unnecessary moral tone in there.

  23. Richard P. Grant says:

    I think as soon as people— *scientists* —realize that publishing is a for-profit business then we can have sensible discussions. (There’s nothing wrong with being for-profit; I’m stating a fact). OA is an ideological position, but has to be paid for—at least if you want something that doesn’t look like it was typeset by a grad student at 7 on a friday night.
    Most of us scientists I think don’t appreciate how much we, um, _appreciate_ the professionalism of the publishing model we currently have. Take away the profit motif and you’re left with double-spaced manuscripts that are stupidly hard to read, full of spelling and grammar pisstakes, all the figures at the back of the sodding manuscript with distal legends—and peer-reviewed by cronies.

  24. Henry Gee says:

    It’s nothing to do with moral tone, Martin – it’s all about having to justify oneself as an editor before a seemingly unceasing deluge of ignorant drivel.

  25. Joerg Heber says:

    Maxine, yes indeed, it is on every page (although it only takes about “access” on that page; I think it is worth hammering home this message once in a while if the context comes to the profits publishers make)
    The study that Martin cites indeed seems a bit inconclusive. Even though they measure 11 journals, there are a lot of factors that play a role.
    The question I still do not understand is the financial one. Assuming publishers insist on the same revenues, the same amount of money has to go into publishing, whether it comes from authors (through public grants for example), or through universities (again, mostly public money). It seems mostly a redistribution in terms of the pot where the money comes from – particularly in the developed world (given that many poor countries can get free access). Otherwise, I hope we are not talking about cutting costs that would go beyond typical profit margins – i.e. on the expense of quality? Reading my preview now, I see Richard just made the same comment :-)
    As I said the other day in another blog here, there is already the provision that authors make containt available online after 6 months – for example by putting the peer reviewed text into a database like Going further and making the back catalogue available for free might be something that could very well happen within a subscription-based model, I think.
    In that context, it is interesting to look at something the American Physical Society did. For a fee ($1300), authors could ensure that their papers are freely available to everyone from the day of publication. But it is rather clear that not many actually make use of it…

  26. steffi suhr says:

    Joerg – yes, I think a redistribution of the funds that pay for the publishing costs is what I was referring to as well. Again, scientific publishing is an additional cost, aside from funding the actual science itself – look at it as you would at buying lab supplies and equipment!
    Henry – you mentioned time-sensitivity: I think it’s important in the OA discussion that one shoe won’t fit all disciplines. Some are longer-lived, and the time frame to open up archives may arguably be longer for some disciplines. Something else to work out.
    Richard – thanks for the very clear description of what we might end up with if publications didn’t go through the hands of someone who does this for a living!
    Maxine – I agree, it is (strangely) mostly an ideological discussion that seems to be missing the point in so many instances. Hopefully we can clear the misunderstandings up soon and move on to figuring out the best publishing *modelS* and get back to talking about science!

  27. Maxine Clarke says:

    I feel a bit more heartended on reading some of these comments!
    There are lots of complexities to the publshing models and costs, which I don’t fully have my head round least of all access to any figures, but one thing is for sure, quality costs a great deal. Whether you have a large charitable donation or whether you ask readers to pay (which means your journal has to be good, or they won’t!), someone has to support the publication costs.
    Disingenuous arguments, such as calling quality journals “glam mags” and accusing them of publishing unfit papers to grab headlines, are pathetic in themselves – but also this in-fighting is meat and drink to the media and hence gives a very bad picture of scientists and their ability to “keep their own house in order” to the general public. I think it is irresponsible and I think that the articles that are being published that attack the peer-review system on little evidence but that support some ideological position; or attack Nature papers based on what they looked like 20 years ago; or slogans and arguments involving dead babies and subscription publishing being like midwives ripping away the baby from its mother; range from facile to beyond the pale, and are a distinctly unscientific and unpleasant way of going about things. The scientific community as a whole is the loser from all of this.

  28. Martin Fenner says:

    On top of my wish list as an academic researcher in Germany are simple things that have already been realised in the United States:
    * *A clinical trials database available to the public*. In contrast to the U.S. “”:, the European clinical trials database EudraCT is not accessible to physicians, researchers or patients.
    * *A central repository*. Following the example of PubMed Central.
    * *Mandatory Open Access after 6-12 months for research funded by the large German Research organizations (e.g. DFG, Helmholtz, Max Planck Society)*. They would follow the example of the NIH (12 months), Howard Hughes Medical Institute and the Wellcome Trust (both 6 months).
    For those interested in a German perspective, I’ve also collected a few resources about Open Access activities in Germany:
    * *”german medical science”:*: 13 Open Access Journals published by the Association of the Scientific Medical Societies in Germany (AWMF)
    * *”Information platform Open Access”:*. The central place for information about Open Access activities in Germany
    * *”STD-DOI”:*. A project about the publication and citation of scientific primary data
    * *”Berlin 6 Open Access Conference”:*. November 11-13, Düsseldorf, Germany

  29. Martin Fenner says:

    Oops, the last link should be “Berlin 6 Open Access Conference”: I met the conference manager Cornelius Puschmann “earlier this year”: in Berlin.