Society Publishers Provide More Than Open Access

Brad FitzpatrickAlively and sometimes acrimonious discussion is raging in scientific and publishing circles over the issue of "open access"

By | July 5, 2004


Brad Fitzpatrick

Alively and sometimes acrimonious discussion is raging in scientific and publishing circles over the issue of "open access" to the content of scientific journals, where all papers published in a journal are available, at no charge, to everyone from the day they appear in print. Under this model, the costs associated with publishing are borne solely by the authors, or more likely by their funding sources; readers do not pay for access.

The American Society for Biochemistry and Molecular Biology (ASBMB) is a strong supporter of broad public access to the scientific literature. In 1995, ASBMB's main journal, the Journal of Biological Chemistry (JBC) became the first basic scientific journal to go fully on-line, in partnership with Stanford University's HighWire Press. HighWire Press now hosts on-line editions of 359 journals, including more than 40 of the 100 most-frequently-cited science journals in the world. This translates into about 718,000 free research reports. HighWire Press thus provides the biomedical community with broad access to the world's largest digital research library of the biomedical sciences.

ASBMB continued to be a trendsetter. For example, the back issues of JBC Online are now available free to anyone with Internet access. This applies after an average of six months from the initial publication date. The Society also provides many economically developing countries with free access to its journals' current contents.

The most innovative advance came in 2001, when ASBMB introduced JBC Papers in Press, providing free access to all JBC papers on the day they are accepted for publication. Other ASBMB journals follow the same system. The Society will continue to enhance access consistent with what has become a well-established and efficient business model.

However, since 2001, a major group advocating the "author-pays" model, the Public Library of Science (PLoS), has launched a broad-based attack on all business models for scientific publication other than its own, which basically involves open access as described above, as well as participation in a free, online repository of research literature. PLoS publishes two electronic journals and charges authors a flat fee of $1,500 (US) to cover publication costs.

Despite sometimes counterproductive tactics, PLoS shares with ASBMB and most other nonprofit scientific publishers the goal of promoting increased access to the biomedical literature. However, ASBMB and others have chosen to pursue their own business models and remain unaffiliated with PLoS.

PLoS claims that charges greater than its own fees for publication are excessive. Yet most societies plow much of their publication revenues back into their publishing operations, and any remaining revenues are spent on programs to advance science, such as scholarships, scientific meetings, grants, educational ' outreach, advocacy for research funding, the free dissemination of information for the public, and improvements in scientific publishing. This appears to matter little to PLoS, who blithely advises that societies should develop other sources of revenue.

PLoS grants unrestricted free distribution rights to its journal content; however, it has no mechanism to insure the integrity of the record. Alteration, inadvertent or otherwise, can easily happen as papers are redistributed, and readers could never be sure that the reproduced papers are accurate. In addition, archiving digital material remains a very difficult challenge, and technical reliability remains an issue.

Rather than affiliating with PLoS, ASBMB has chosen to support the Washington, DC, Principles for Free Access to Science The DC Principles have been endorsed by 48 not-for-profit publishers and more than 600,000 scientists and clinicians.

ASBMB continues to address the key issues in publishing: 1) identifying the qualities in a journal that would lead it to be recommended to colleagues; 2) ascertaining whether the scientific community has unmet needs that would warrant significant change in current publishing models; 3) analyzing how well the public is served by the existing models for publication of scientific literature; and 4) anticipating what the scientific publishing world will look like in 10 years' time.

Peter Farnham is the public affairs officer for the American Society for Biochemistry and Molecular Biology; William R. Brinkley, PhD, is a Distinguished Service Professor in the Department of Molecular and Cellular Biology, vice president for Graduate Sciences, and dean of the Graduate School of Biomedical Sciences, Baylor College of Medicine. The views expressed are those of the authors, and do not necessarily represent the views of the American Society for Biochemistry and Molecular Biology or Baylor College of Medicine.

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