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BioMedCentral faces angry editors

Open access publisher says complaints are part of growing pains

By | May 1, 2006

Open access publisher BioMedCentral (BMC) is facing a potential revolt from a number of the editors at its independent journals, who are upset with how the journals are being managed. Several editors of the 93 independent journals published by BMC have told The Scientist that they are considering taking their journals to other publishers. "BMC have done a good job at promulgating the open access -- probably more than any other publisher, said Kuan-Teh Jeang, editor-in-chief of Retrovirology, a BMC journal. "The model is right, the principle is outstanding, but the execution is somewhat questionable." BMC, a sister company of The Scientist, was founded in 2000 on the principle of open access. The editors of BMC independent journals, who are not paid for their contributions, have full editorial control over the titles, while the article production process is managed by BMC. The publisher funds the journals by charging authors to publish their articles, known as the article processing charge (APC). Although editors at independent BMC journals say they still support open access, they are unhappy with BMC's execution of the open access model, and are voicing a range of complaints. For instance, editors are protesting recent increases in the APC, and reductions in the number of waivers that editors are permitted to offer to contributors who cannot afford those costs, among other issues. Moreover, they are protesting what they say is BMC's apparent refusal to cooperate with editors to resolve these complaints. "Most of the editors seem very, very unhappy about what is going on," said Neville Punchard, co-editor-in-chief of Journal of Inflammation. "A lot of them might up sticks and go." BMC's publisher, Matthew Cockerill, said the company is working with editors to resolve the problems, and insisted that the complaints are normal for any new company. "Yes there are growing pains, but we are making huge efforts to address those," he told The Scientist. "We very much welcome this discussion." In a letter to Cockerill, Richard Feinman, co-editor-in-chief of Nutrition and Metabolism and head of a committee elected by editors to represent their concerns to BMC, asks the publisher to make a series of changes, including rolling back recent APC increases. (APCs currently range from $660-1700.) "This is a temporary glitch," Feinman told The Scientist. "Open access is going to move forward and if the BMC management can meet this challenge, fine, if not, they should be replaced." Editors began talking to each other after BMC issued a Code of Conduct for independent editors in a bulk email, enabling editors to start a listserv discussion group. Jeang said the Code of Conduct was issued without consultation with editors. The ensuing discussions revealed shared concerns about the APC increases and waiver decreases, both of which editors feared could serve as disincentives to contributors, especially from overseas. BMC management has been "so far, uncompromising" on these matters, said Jeang, and appears to not be heeding editors' complaints. Several editors also complain that BMC has been taking on new journals that overlap with existing ones, without consulting existing editors. "There's some sort of cannibalism going on there," said Philippe Grandjean, co-editor-in-chief of Environmental Health, who says he is competing in-house with three other titles. The growing number of titles also means that BMC support is spread increasingly thinly, said editors. "Obviously there are challenges that we face in dealing with more than eighty different journals with lots of editors who often have mutually conflicting interests, requirements, and priorities," said Cockerill. "If those editors are able to discuss amongst themselves their relative concerns and agree on their priorities, that could be a very constructive way forward in making sure we are delivering the best service to these editors." "We all share what BMC wants to accomplish," added Jeang. "We all feel open access is where we want to donate our time, energy, and reputations. But what we want from BMC is a sense that they value us as equal team members when formulating policy and providing input." A new contract in 2005 introduced the rise in APC and required editors to sign ownership of the journals over to BMC, which effectively prevents editors from taking their journal title to other publishers. Vinod Shidham, co-editor-in-chief of Cytojournal, chose not to sign. "If we retain ownership, we can always go somewhere else," he told The Scientist. "I have some offers from other publishers." Denys Wheatley, co-editor-in-chief of Theoretical Biology and Medical Modelling did sign the contract, but said he now regrets the decision. "I thought at the time that things were going well and had not anticipated a sea change," he said. "But now I would like the option of taking the title elsewhere." BMC publisher Cockerill told The Scientist he was not surprised the editors weren't happy about the increase in APC. Still, he said that BMC prices are still relatively low. "More than half our editors have agreed to a £750 article [USD $1345] processing charge, which is lower than almost all other open access journals." (For instance, another open-access publisher, Public Library of Science, charges $1,500 per article.) "We're not going to achieve anything for any of our journals if we put ourselves out of business." Cockerill also argued that there is no evidence that increases in APC have affected submissions. For instance, previous increases in APC have not, he said, been associated with drops in submissions. Instead, some journals may struggle for submissions because some fields are less open to open access. "Young fields like bioinformatics have a high uptake of open access," he told The Scientist. "In other, more traditional, fields such as surgery, it has been a slower process." Indeed, not all editors are dissatisfied with BMC's service. David Lipman, the director of the US National Center for Biotechnology Information and co-editor-in-chief of Biology Direct, described some of the reactions from editors as "bizarrely emotional." If some editors "are out there saying their journal is going to go under because of all this, that's a self-fulfilling prophecy." Even editors who are voicing complaints about BMC are hopeful about its future. Grandjean said he chose not to sign the contract, and is not sure he will stay at BMC, saying he prefers to wait and see how the situation plays out. "But I'm confident that we can work it out," he said. "It is important for all of us that [BMC] succeeds." Stuart Blackman sblackman@the-scientist.com Please see an editor's note on this story. Links within this article BMC Independent journals http://www.biomedcentral.com/independent/ Kuan-Teh Jeang http://www.niaid.nih.gov/dir/labs/lmm/Jeang/jeang.htm Retrovirology http://www.retrovirology.com/ S. Pincock, "UK committee backs open access," The Scientist, July 20, 2004. http://www.the-scientist.com/article/display/22299/ Neville Punchard http://www.luton.ac.uk/research/ihr/staff/neville-punchard Journal of Inflammation http://www.journal-inflammation.com/ Matthew Cockerill http://www.biomedcentral.com/info/about/whoweare Richard Feinman http://www.hscbklyn.edu/biochemistry/feinman.html Nutrition and Metabolism http://www.nutritionandmetabolism.com/ Philippe Grandjean http://www.sdu.dk/health/IPH/environ/staff/pgrandjean/index.htm Environmental Health http://www.ehjournal.net/ Vinod Shidham http://doctor.mcw.edu/provider.php?2140 Cytojournal http://www.cytojournal.com/ Theoretical Biology and Medical Modelling http://www.tbiomed.com/home/ David Lipman http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/CBBresearch/Lipman/ Biology Direct http://www.biology-direct.com/
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Comments

May 11, 2006

I always wondered and feared near monopolistic status of BMC - which through their sheer market power not only threatens to put smaller truly "independent" Open Access journals - which run independent from any large publisher including BMC - out of business, but can also do what it wants - similar to what Microsoft and other quasi-monopolisits do in their fields [1].\nI am the editor and publisher of a truly "independent" Open Access journal - the Journal of Medical Internet Research (JMIR, http://www.jmir.org) - which runs on Open Source publishing tools. We are older than BMC and PLoS, fully sustainable, and are able to pay our editors.\nI should remind all disgruntled editors that there are alternatives to BMC. We are more than happy to work with editors to set up a truly independent journal. After the success of JMIR we are now accepting proposals to launch new non-ehealth related journals.\nWe will donate our tools, technology, software, and experience to anybody who wants to create a new Open Access journal. If you want to become the "founding editor" of a new peer-reviewed journal, run and owned by researchers (not by commercial publishers) please read http://www.jmir.org/?Start_a_new_journal\n\nReference\n1. Eysenbach G. Open access monopoly may threaten smaller journals. BMJ 2003;326:766 (5 April). http://bmj.bmjjournals.com/cgi/content/full/326/7392/766

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