Archive for September, 2012

Open access – is the UK leading the way?

Novel scientific findings are disseminated via scientific journals. Currently, the scholarly publishing system has become dysfunctional and is in turmoil. The main reason is that the system was designed for the era of paper and print, not for the digital era.

For those involved in scientific publishing, the ‘ancient Chinese curse’ (more likely recent and Western) comes to mind: “May you live in interesting times“. The purpose of this post is to outline some relevant aspects of these ‘interesting times’, and to highlight some recent contributions made by the UK to the ‘Open Access Movement’. This OA Movement is increasingly seen as a solution to the currently-dysfunctional publishing system.

Some History

Scientific journals have a long history. The first scientific journal in English was the Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society (Phil Trans), published in March of 1665 by the Royal Society of London. It was the first journal in the world exclusively devoted to science. It is still being published today, making it also the world’s longest-running scientific journal.

Thus, it was in London that scientific journals began. There was another academic journal that began publication, in January of 1665, in Paris. Later renamed Journal des Savants, it was more news-oriented than Phil Trans, was not restricted to scientific news, and subsequently became more of a literary journal.

The purpose of Phil Trans was to inform the Fellows of the Society and other interested readers of the latest scientific discoveries. But it accomplished much more, as described by Jean-Claude Guédon in an article, In Oldenburg’s Long Shadow, published in 2007. Phil Trans not only permitted scientists to communicate their discoveries and share knowledge. It also served as a public record of original contributions to scientific knowledge. In this way, it served as a public registry of intellectual property.

Such a registry meant that it was no longer necessary to use other (sometimes unorthodox) methods to ensure intellectual priority to the discoveries or insights of scientists. For example, J-C Guédon comments that Galileo had sent an anagram of the phrase describing his discovery of Jupiter’s satellites to Kepler (and to many others) in order to establish his priority. Phil Trans made such ingenious strategies unnecessary.

The founding editor of Phil Trans was the first secretary of the Royal Society, Henry Oldenburg. Oldenburg began the practice of peer review – sending submitted manuscripts to experts who could judge their quality before publication. Pre-publication peer review continues to be a feature of scholarly journals. Thus, a key feature of scholarly publications also originated in London.

Transition Toward Open Access

Now, after almost 350 years of existence, scientific journals are in the process of undergoing a major transition. The transition is away from journals being subscription-based, where the reader must pay a toll in order to have access, toward Open Access (OA), where no toll needs to be paid.

OA is the practice of providing unrestricted access via the Internet to peer-reviewed scholarly journal articles. It’s the existence of the Internet that’s made OA feasible. Scholarly publishing is being reconstructed to adapt it to the Internet age, where the costs of distribution of electronic versions of articles are much less than the costs of distributing paper versions.

OA comes in two degrees. A distinction needs to be made between Gratis and Libre OA. Some OA literature is already digital, online and free of charge (Gratis OA). Some is not only free of charge, but also free of most copyright and licensing restrictions (Libre OA). A long-term goal of the open access movement is to foster the transition of as much as possible of the scholarly literature from toll access (TA) to Libre OA.

At present, there is an ongoing debate about how best to achieve this goal. The main debate is about the best balance between ‘Green’ OA and ‘Gold’ OA. Green OA is based on OA repositories. OA repositories do not perform peer review. Instead, they provide a venue for articles that have been peer-reviewed elsewhere. Gold OA is based on OA journals that do perform peer review. Peter Suber (in 2008)  emphasized that the Gratis/Libre distinction (see above) is not synonymous with the Green/Gold distinction.

A recurring criticism of OA is that it will lead to the traditional peer review process being abandoned. However, this criticism is factually inaccurate.

Gold OA Journals

The UK-based BMJ (formerly, the British Medical Journal) became, in 1998, the first major general medical journal to provide OA to its research articles. It also began to deposit the full text in the PubMed Central (PMC) repository, and to allow authors to retain the copyright of their articles. BMJ pioneered OA medical research articles. Non-research articles in BMJ ceased to be OA in 2005 (see Comments section here).

Another of the first OA journals in medicine, the Journal of Medical Internet Research (JMIR), published its first issue in 1999. JMIR is based in Canada. It’s a Gold OA journal that’s now the leading journal in Medical Informatics.

Some examples of early OA publishers are listed here and here.

The first of the large for-profit STM (Science, Technology and Medicine) OA publishers was BioMed Central (BMC), founded in the UK in 2000. Hence, a UK-based publisher was a pioneer in the establishment of Gold OA as a viable publishing option for a commercial publisher. In October of 2008, BMC was acquired by Springer, the 2nd largest STM publisher. BMC currently publishes over 200 peer-reviewed OA journals.

Another pioneering OA publisher is Public Library of Science (PLoS), which launched it’s first journal in 2003. It currently publishes seven peer-reviewed journals.

An increasing number of toll-access journals offer a hybrid OA option. Upon payment of a publication fee, individual articles are made OA. This provides two revenue streams to the publishers of hybrid OA journals, one from subscriptions, and one from publication fees.

The hybrid OA model has led to concerns that publishers may be “double-dipping”, because they receive the Article Processing Charges (APCs) but do not reduce subscription fees.  Royal Society Publishing provides one recent example of a publisher of hybrid OA journals that has promised to implement a transparent pricing policy. As has been pointed out by Stuart Shieber, it’s difficult to determine whether or not double-dipping is happening.

Costs of Gold OA

Of course, the publication of articles involves costs. Gold OA does away with the use of subscriptions to cover these costs. Instead, there are a variety of other ways to cover the costs of publication. The description of each journal listed in the Directory of Open Access Journals (DOAJ) includes information about whether or not a publication fee is charged. Many of the journals listed in the DOAJ do not have APCs.

Also, OA journals that do have APCs commonly offer a fee waiver for authors with limited financial resources. Examples are the waivers offered by PLoS  and by Frontiers.

However, within the biomedical sciences, the prevalent approach of publishers is to require the authors (or their funding agencies or institutions) to pay an upfront APC for Gold OA. For example, in 2002, BioMed Central’s business model evolved to include APCs, and these have been BMC’s primary source of revenue since then,

A major advantage of Gold OA is that articles are publicly accessible immediately upon publication. A major disadvantage is that the APCs can be costly. At the high end is Cell Reports (Cell Press), where the APC is US$5000.

The APC for Open Biology (Royal Society Publishing) is much lower, at US$1932, and is currently being waived. The APC for the very popular journal PLoS ONE (Public Library of Science) is even lower, at US$1350.  A recently-launched (2011) journal that’s analogous to PLoS ONE is Scientific Reports (Nature Publishing Group). Its APC is also US$1350. A comparison of APCs has been provided by the OA publisher BioMed Central. The APCs of BMC itself are in the £1075-£1230 (approx. US$1665-$1905) range.

A list of Publishers with Paid Options for Open Access (publishers that provide hybrid OA) is available via the SHERPA/RoMEO website, but the list and the information about APCs may not be up-to-date. Nature Communications (Nature Publishing Group) is at the high end (US$5000 per article). The hybrid OA option of Royal Society Publishing (US$2380) is less expensive.

A novel approach to OA publishing is the new journal eLife. It is supported by three influential research funders, the Wellcome Trust in the UK, the Howard Hughes Medical Institute in the USA, and the Max Planck Society in Germany. It will begin publication in the winter of 2012-13. The APC for eLife has not yet been announced, but will be waived while the journal is being established.

An even more novel approach is being used by PeerJ, a new OA publication that will be open for submissions in the last quarter of 2012. PeerJ will not depend on either subscriptions or APCs as sources of funding. Instead, every author must have a membership plan in order to publish in PeerJ. The plan is good for the life of the author, so long as the author meets a requirement to submit a review at least once per year.

One could regard the PeerJ membership payment as a one-time-only submission fee. Pricing of the membership  ranges from US$99 (one publication per year) to US$299 (unlimited publications per year). If a manuscript has more than 12 authors, then only 12 authors need to have a paid membership plan.

All of the journals mentioned above provide Gratis OA. Not all provide Libre OA. One needs to look at whether or not a Creative Commons Attribution License (CC-BY) is being used. CC-BY is the most accommodating of the Creative Commons copyright licenses and provides Libre OA.

Green OA Via OA Repositories

Green OA requires that the authors deposit their works in OA repositories. A pioneering OA repository for electronic prepublications of scientific articles was ArXiv, established at Los Alamos National Laboratory in the USA in 1991 (it moved to Cornell University in 2001). ArXiv provides public access to e-prints in Physics, Mathematics, Computer Science, Quantitative Biology, Quantitative Finance and Statistics. The e-prints are not peer reviewed, but moderators review submissions and may reject or recategorize any that are deemed inappropriate or off-topic.

In 2000, PubMed Central (PMC) began operation. An examination of it’s history shows that the ArXiv was the primary conceptual model for what became PubMed Central. PMC is a free full-text archive of biomedical and life sciences journal literature. It’s sponsored by the US National Institutes of Health (NIH).

PMC International currently supports UKPMC (operational in 2007; will become Europe PMC in November 2012) and PMC Canada (operational in 2009). UKPMC was the first participant in PMC International, and the change in name of UKPMC is in recognition that the European Research Council (ERC) will be the third European funder to join UKPMC.

PMC is, in part, a national repository that captures the output of publicly funded research (especially, research supported by the NIH). The Public Access Policy of the NIH, implemented in 2008, requires that final peer-reviewed journal manuscripts that arise from NIH funds be accessible to the public on PMC no later than 12 months after publication.

There are other kinds of repositories, including many institutional repositories. The Directory of Open Access Repositories (OpenDOAR) and the Registry of Open Access Repositories (ROAR) list over 2000 research institutional or departmental OA repositories worldwide.

A major advantage of Green OA is that it costs authors nothing to self-archive an article in an OA repository, if a suitable one is available. There are no submission fees. A disadvantage is that there is much variation across different journals in their restrictions on Green OA. A useful database of the policies of various journals is available at the SHERPA/RoMEO website. For example, Nature permits the author’s version of an accepted paper (the unedited manuscript) to be archived in PMC and/or in the author’s institutional repository, for public release six months after publication. Such embargoes on public access are a major drawback of Green OA.

Although there is an ongoing debate about the optimal balance between Gold and Green OA, policy decisions are being made about how best to foster the transition from TA to OA (see below).

Political Appeal of OA

Various observers describe today’s global economy as one in transition to a “knowledge economy,” as an extension of an “information society.” In the UK, David Willetts, the Minister of State for Universities and Science, has articulated a vision of a knowledge economy supported by OA – to provide public access to publicly funded research results. In a speech made on 2 May 2012 to the Publishers Association annual general meeting in London, he said:

The evidence underpinning our ambition for public access is compelling. For example, publicly funded and freely available information from the Human Genome Project led to greater take up of knowledge and commercialisation than from earlier protected data. To date, in fact, every dollar of federal investment in the Human Genome Project has helped generate $141 for the US economy. Separately, a report this year from the US Committee for Economic Development has concluded that the US National Institute of Health’s policy of open access after one year has accelerated scientific progress and the transition from basic research to commercialisation; generated more follow-on research and more citations; and reduced duplicate or dead-end lines of inquiry – so increasing the US government’s return on its investment in research. The researcher Philip Davis, meanwhile, has found that when publishers randomly made certain articles open access on journal websites, readership increased by up to 250% compared to protected articles.

Thus, David Willetts emphasized the economic impact of the Human Genome Project,  highlighted information provided in a 2012 report [PDF] about the Public Access Policy of the US National Institutes of Health (NIH) , and referred to the relevant work of Philip Davis.

The Finch Report

In October of 2011, David Willetts had already set up the Working Group on Expanding Access to Published Research Findings (‘Finch Group’). It was chaired by Dame Janet Finch DBE, Professor of Sociology at Manchester University and independent co-Chair of the Council for Science and Technology. The Group’s role was to examine how UK-funded research findings could be made more accessible.

The membership of the Group, 16 in all, included OA advocates and other interested  parties. The latter included representatives of large commercial for-profit publishers (Springer, Wiley Blackwell). The presence of these representatives took into account the fact that the UK is home to a vigorous academic and scholarly publishing industry. Did these representatives drive the policy direction taken by the Group? It seems more likely that the publishing industry is in ferment, and that the representatives of publishers were not in a position of strength.

The report from the Finch Group (the Finch Report) was published on June 18, 2012. On July 16, 2012, there were three major announcements that signaled a transformation of OA policy in the UK. Firstly, the UK government announced that it had accepted the recommendations included in the Finch Report, and plans to have better access to British scientific research and academic papers by 2014. Secondly, the Research Councils UK (RCUK) announced a new OA policy, applicable to all qualifying publications being submitted for publication from April 1, 2013. Thirdly, the Higher Education Funding Council for England (HEFCE) announced plans to make publicly-funded research more freely available after 2014.

As Peter Suber has pointed out in an editorial in BMJ, “These announcements signal a massive shift towards open access for publicly funded research in the UK…“. In a much longer essay, Tectonic movements toward OA in the UK and Europe, he has analyzed this “massive shift” in a very thorough way.

Gold OA Preferred Over Green OA

The Finch Group expressed a strong preference for Gold OA over Green OA. According to a clarification of the RCUK policy, in comparison with the Finch Report, RCUK also prefers Gold OA, but, if a suitable Gold OA option isn’t available, will accept Green OA, with an embargo of no more than 6 months for science papers (12 months for papers in the humanities and social sciences).

The main concern about the preference for Gold OA expressed by the Finch Group and the RCUK is that a transition to Gold OA, without taking full advantage of Green OA, is needlessly expensive (see, for example, Open Access Evangelism and Key Questions for Open Access Policy in the UK).

On September 7, 2012, the UK government announced that it will provide an extra £10 million to help to cover these transitional costs. A sentence from the announcement: “The investment will be made to 30 institutions receiving funding through Research Councils and UK higher education funding councils“.

The extra £10 million will apparently be a one-off transfer of money from elsewhere in the science budget. The RCUK announcement includes plans to provide block grants to support payment of APCs. Any additional funds that may be needed must come out of the already-stretched budgets of funding agencies and universities.

One of the key benefits of OA, from the perspective of the RCUK, is “the potential it offers to the research community (and beyond) to mash, mine and mix information and knowledge.  This provides real opportunities to substantially further the progress of research and innovation“. Libre OA is required if this potential is to be fully realized. This is a reason why the Finch Group and the RCUK have endorsed Gold OA and a CC-BY copyright license.

What’s Next?

Will other countries join the UK in its efforts to implement a transition to Gold OA? An answer came quickly. On July 17, 2012 – only one day after the announcements in the UK – the European Commission announced that, as of 2014, all scientific publications produced with funding from Horizon 2020 will have to be OA. Horizon 2020 is the EU’s Research & Innovation funding program for 2014-2020. Apparently, equal weight will be given to Gold and Green OA.

The Reputation Issue

Studies of authors’ views about factors that influence their choice of a journal as a venue for publication have identified journal reputation as a major factor (see, for example, here and here). A very widely used indicator of a journal’s reputation is it’s Impact Factor, which is the average number of citations received per paper published in that journal during the two preceding years. There have been many criticisms of the Journal Impact Factor (see: Sick of Impact Factors and Impact Factors: Use and Abuse). A problem for Gold OA journals is that few are more than a decade old. Time is required for a journal to develop a very favorable reputation.

In the age of blogs and social networks, it’s the impact of the article itself, not its venue, that needs to be assessed. Alternative metrics (‘altmetrics‘) are under development.


Will the ‘Reputation Issue’ pose problems about compliance with these new policies in the UK and Europe? The Wellcome Trust (a charitable foundation in the UK that supports biomedical research) has had concerns about compliance with its own OA policy. On June 28, 2012, it announced that it will be tightening up enforcement of the OA policy.

One of the three steps included in the strengthened policy is that Wellcome-funded researchers must be compliant with the Trust’s OA policy before any funding renewals or new grant awards will be activated. Again, it seems likely that a policy initiative that has originated in the UK may serve as a model for other funding agencies, beyond the UK as well as within it.

Sir Mark Walport, director of Wellcome Trust and a champion of OA, has been appointed to take over as UK Government Chief Scientific Adviser in April 2013.

What About the USA?

As noted above, the NIH already has a Public Access Policy. The rate of compliance with this policy currently stands at a respectable 75%. However, a lengthy embargo period of up to 12 months is permitted.

In May, 2012 a petition was created, on a White House website, to advocate implementation of OA policies for all US federal agencies that fund scientific research. The petition has obtained over 30,000 signatures, more than the threshold of 25,000 required to evoke an official response. So far, there’s been no response. The response, Heather Joseph has said, “could be as weak as a simple acknowledgement, or as strong as a policy statement or directive“.

The timing of the petition was no accident. The bipartisan Federal Research Public Access Act (FRPAA) was reintroduced into the Senate (S 2096) and the House (HR 4004) in 2012. FRPAA proposes to extend the NIH policy to other federal agencies, and to shorten the permitted embargo from twelve months to six. A FAQ about FRPAA has been provided by the Alliance for Taxpayer Access.

There has been strong opposition to FRPAA from journal publishers. A main point of opposition is the proposed reduction of the duration of the permitted embargo from 12 months to 6 months.

The House and Senate bills have been referred to committee, and no prompt action seems likely.

Is the UK leading the way during the transition from TA to OA?

The short answer to this question is, I think, “At present, yes”. The announcements in July (see the section on the “Finch Report”, above) have been identified by Bernstein Research, in a very substantial report (PDF) dated September 10, 2012 as “the revival of OA“. I agree.

Will this initiative be successful? Stevan Harnad is a long-time advocate of emphasizing Green over Gold OA during the transition period. He has predicted that, if the RCUK policy isn’t modified, “the UK will lose its historic leadership of the global open access movement along with a good deal of public money that could have been spent on supporting more research…”.

The policy leadership provided by the July announcements was a surprise. It’s a bold attempt to achieve Libre OA  within a very few years. In Stephen Curry on Open Access, post-Finch, dated August 20, 2012, Stephen Curry is quoted as saying (in part):

I have the sense that things are less up in the air now, because the UK has nailed its colors to the mast, but it depends if their policy will win the heart and mind of the scientific community.

In Conclusion

The only prediction that I’m willing to make is that there will be further surprises.

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