Will open access work?

Study raises concerns about peer review, finances; open access advocates argue report is biased, designed to discredit model

By | October 11, 2005

A report on open access publishing released today (October 11) has raised concerns about peer review, the standard of editing and the financial future of some open access journals. However, open access advocates argue the latest report is biased by its funders, including the Association of Learned and Professional Society Publishers (ALPSP), whose membership includes publishers of subscription journals.

Other sponsors of the study include the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS), publisher of the subscription journal Science, and HighWire Press, an online repository of journal articles. The report includes additional data from the Association of American Medical Colleges.

Over the past decade, discussion about open access publishing, a model that allows readers to access papers without paying a fee, has increased. Debate has focused in part on the impact this new model—which raises money from author fees and other sources--could have on traditional scientific journals.

According to the report, comparable numbers of open access journals and traditional journals conduct peer review of articles, but more open access journals (28%) appear to rely on internal editorial staff for peer review, not outside experts, said Sally Morris, chief executive of the ALPSP, the association that initiated the study and has published the report on its Web site. "What they call peer review is not doing what peer review is supposed to do," she said.

Open access publishers may also have impending financial troubles, the report noted. More than 40% of surveyed open access journals reported they were suffering shortfalls, and 24% said they were breaking even, leaving only 35% that report a surplus. In comparison, 81% of the HighWire and AAMC journals reported a profit and 75% of the ALPSP journals were running a surplus.

More than half of fully open access journals do not charge author fees, another unexpected finding, Morris told The Scientist. Instead, respondents from full open access journals reported that author fees most commonly stemmed from research grants or allocation of library budgets with the authors' institutions. The report also found that just 72% of open access journals copyedit manuscripts.

Overall, the report states that the financial outlook for open access journals is weaker than those of other journal types. There's no particular reason to expect that to change over time, either, said Morris. "If a journal is successful in establishing itself it is likely to do better over time under the traditional model," she said, whereas that is unlikely to be the case for open access journals.

In the current investigation, study parameters were defined by the co-sponsors and research and analysis was conducted by Kaufman-Wills Group, a group of independent consultants. The study was carried out in two stages: the first surveyed 128 ALPSP-member journals, 34 journals of the Association of American Medical Colleges, 85 journals hosted by HighWire Press and 248 journals from the Directory of Open Access Journals. In the second phase, 22 publishers were interviewed to provide a series of detailed case studies.

Matthew Cockerill, publisher at BioMed Central, The Scientist's sister company, argued that the report seemed to push a specific point of view. "It is well known that ALPSP is taking an antagonistic stance on open access," he told The Scientist. "The report appears to have an agenda…to discredit open access."

Cockerill added that the authors "basically miss the point" in many ways. In terms of copyediting of research articles, for example, "it's a very open question in terms of whether the benefits of copyediting outweigh the downsides such as inefficiencies introduced. It's about the quality of the research."

It also makes little sense to project the journals' future financial solvency using a "snapshot from a moment in time," he said.

Jan Velterop, an advocate of open access with the large German publisher Springer, said he also disagreed with the report's findings. "We are absolutely convinced that with open access we can have good profit margins," he told The Scientist. "But it may be that it is harder to make an excessive profit, that is true."

Velterop said he was disappointed that learned societies were taking such a negative view of open access. "I find it astonishing that there are some societies who really should have the promotion of science at the heart of their mission but are seeming to push back the development rather than coming up with imaginative ways to push it forward," Velterop said.

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