180 Open Access journals bought by big publisher

Early yesterday morning I received an email from my publisher that the journal for which I am co-editor in chief has been sold. Our journal is one of 180 published by BioMedCentral (BMC), the largest open access scientific publisher. The business model of BMC and other open access publishers is to charge the author, not the reader. BMC journals are online only (there are one or two exceptions) and hence have no page limitations. Charges are for a single article, whatever the length. Color photos, movies and supplementary files are all included in the charge (it is not a page charge, something that many subscription journals also have). Most scientists are able to include the processing charge, which runs somewhere between $1500 and $3000 depending upon the journal, as an expense on their grant budgets. Waivers for hardship or special cases are granted, but for the most part the cost of publication is shifted. It is free to the reader but not to the author, but the author retains copyright and gains a much wider readership. At the outset it was not clear if such a business model could work in scientific publishing, and its early years BMC struggled to make a profit. The sale of BMC to Springer Science+Business Media, the world's second largest scientific publisher (1700 journals), seems to have answer the question of viability. But it leaves some other questions open.

Springer already uses a hybrid business model for some of its journals, allowing an author to pay a $3000 fee to make their article open access immediately. NIH funded biomedical articles are now required to be freely available within 12 months of publication and some universities, like Harvard's College of Arts and Sciences, is requiring its faculty to publish in open access journals. The handwriting is on the wall for scientific publishers and the Springer acquisition can be seen as an acknowledgement of this. The BMC acquisition required approval by the BMC Board of Trustees. BMC's stated principles required the Board to affirm that Springer was committed to the open access model. For its part, Springer's CEO of Science and Business Media Derk Haank said: "This acquisition reinforces the fact that we see open access publishing as a sustainable part of [scientific, technical, and medical] publishing, and not an ideological crusade." (The Scientist) We'll see. The part I worry about is that we will see a continuous increase in the processing fees, just as we have seen rapacious scientific publishers increase subscription costs to levels that made it unaffordable for libraries to subscribe. Scientist could publish for free but other scientists couldn't afford to read what they published. If we get to the point where reading is free but it is too expensive to write, we won't be better off.

Meanwhile, both BMC and Springer assure us editors that nothing will change -- "for the moment." The same management team will operate under Springer direction and in the future the implied promise is that BMC journals will benefit from Springer's extensive resources. Maybe. I hope so.

I've had experience with Springer, both as an author and as a reader. I have dozens of Springer mathematics and statistics books and found dealing with them to be generally pleasant and hassle free. But I've no experience with them on the business side. Springer may not be committed to open access for ideological reasons, but I am. It is why I took on the job of Editor in Chief in the first place. If I see the goal of free accessibility to scientific research threatened by practices like ramping up processing fees, the only ramp I'll be taking is the off ramp.

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<> Unless you work for a large institution these fees are too much. I run a small business and on average publish about 6-8 papers a year with my colleagues. This would break the bank, so I don't use open access journals for that reason. I know a lot of scientists in a similar situation.


Marissa: I understand. The OA model shifts the burden and that burden can be considerable for some sectors of the scientific community. Some OA journals issue waivers for authors that can't pay the fee but these are limited. If OA becomes a common publishing model the answer will be that authors will view the processing charges as another necessary expense, like the service contract for their HPLCs. The cost on the other end is that their work will not be read.

Unless the fee waivers become much more widespread, the growth of open access may be incredibly devastating to junior faculty and graduate students who have limited funding and resources. Necessary or not, those of us in this position will have reduced opportunities to publish, which may hurt competitiveness when applying for grants. It's an ugly downward spiral.

Jen: Grad students, post docs and junior faculty publish frequently in our journal. The grants that fund their research fund the processing charge. it is a cost of dissemination and included in their grant budgets in some form. This hasn't seemed to be a problem. It is the developing world and government agencies that most frequently request waivers.

I'm curious why a $3000 charge per publication makes any sense for an online publication. What costs does this have to cover?

In my experience in cryptography, the reviewers are volunteers, and the net resources to put up the paper are not expensive at all (IACR runs a free e-print service).

Does the additional money go to salaries and overhead for the journal? Does it pay for professional copyediting or something? It just seems odd to me that it would cost so much to publish something online.

By albatross (not verified) on 08 Oct 2008 #permalink

albatross: The Editors in Chief and the reviewers are unpaid. We have an editorial assistant who is paid a small amount to check formatting on manuscripts (especially important for online publication). The processing charge goes to the publishers for server use, specialized software development (online reviewing, contacting reviewers, etc.), their administration and their profit. They make money. I don't know what Springer's balance sheet looks like for OA. $3K is not out of line but we charge only about $1500 (approximate because the charge is in Pounds Sterling so the exchange rate affects the dollar equivalent).

Note that many subscriber supported journals also charge hefty page charges that can easily amount to $2500 with no open access. So the processing charges are not that out of the ordinary in scientific publishing and they aren 't by the page. Color and supplementary files are included.

It's confusing to me. We have all the potential to do a cost-free, all-volunteer research peer-review "social network", if you will, and instead we put these folks in the middle to make it more difficult and costly. "open" usually means "open". I just don't get why someone tries to put a business model between the writers and readers of peer-reviewed research.

Luckily the preprint servers are making the debate somewhat moot. I predict that no one will pay to publish or read peer-reviewed research within the next few decades. The Amazons or Googles will publish it for free, the peer-reviewers will peer-review for free, the editors will edit for free and that will be a Good Thing for everyone.

Michael: I hope you are right. That's the notion I started with. But the biomedical community is far behind the math and physics community and it hasn't been possible to this point to have our own preprint server. So the OA model is the halfway house. To do as you suggest will require a lot of work in the open source community to give us the software tools we need to do this job. Peer review is still the standard.

I support open access publishing for ideological reasons.
However, I agree with Marissa regarding costs. And sometimes, it's not even small agencies/groups that can't afford the fees. I work for a government agency in a smaller country, and we have a tight, tight budget. There is no external funding and the internal funding goes down every year. Despite this, we have a pretty good output of work.
However, given the cost associated with publishing (even open source) and the need for government to ensure publicly funded research is in the public domain, it is actually cheaper for us to publish our own quarterly journal than it is to submit to any other journal.
Unfortunately, we lose the kudos and the career boosts associated with "peer reviewed" journals (even though anything we publish is pretty extensively peer reviewed), but at least the information is in the public domain, for those who know where to look.

By attack rate (not verified) on 08 Oct 2008 #permalink

I'm with a scientific society that's been trying to do the OA journal thing -- there are a few lessons from the effort.

1. it's very hard to make a quality peer reviewed scientific OA journal, and have it be free for authors and readers.

2. BMC doesn't offer much that you can't get for free (or, at least, should be able to get for free) -- with the BMC model, the major burden of labor and expertise are still with Editors and Reviewers.

3. BMC software, platform and hosting are extremely cheap. And BMC business model is fantastic, since they have little/no added cost associated with each additional journal title (their development was done long ago). As a business, Springer knows exactly what they're doing.

4. the big hurdle for flegling scientific journal publishing is with day to day management. And BMC doesn't do this for you.

there are free platforms available, ie, http://www.scholarlyexchange.org/ , and others I'm sure.

The problem is with the day to day management.

And the problem may be one of culture -- somehow lots of PhDs and MDs (and grad students) give freely of their time and expertise through editorship and peer review (as an ideological crusade? -- clearly not the ideological crusade Springer speaks of). But not many CEOs, MBAs or students of business will give freely of their time to run or manage peer reviewed publications.

I can say this = the PLoS model gives us all hope that it isn't written in stone = publishing of science doesn't need to be run like a business.

By anon anon (not verified) on 08 Oct 2008 #permalink

I've published two articles with BMC journals. Two or three years ago (and you could observe this by perusing the BMC website) institutions began switching from "full members" to "supporter members". The publishing privileges extended to authors at "full membership" institutions were liberal; at "supporter membership" institutions not so much.

I contacted the library at the CDC (where I am employed) several years back concerning this matter. The response was that full membership was too expensive, and indeed the CDC dropped to the status of a "supporter member". Today, I don't even see the CDC listed at that level.

There is a certain irony about the purported cost justifications. I was once told by a CDC ADS that the agency would never "pay for publication" (I guess that would seem like the vanity press?). Yet, I am quite sure that the CDC has footed the bill for numerous "theme issues" in noted journals. One must assume that the review criteria (applied largely to invited authors with practically guaranteed slots) are not particularly strict, either.

S: You are absolutely correct. My own institution was a subscriber and dropped its subscription after the fee went up five fold in one year. As an Editor I was outraged but it didn't do any good. BMC was determined to turn a profit, presumably so that they could be acquired, as they have, by a big for profit journal. Having said that, their processing charges are the same or less than the PLoS journals. I am not sure of the economics of all this but this suggests that the charges of $1K to $2K are probably what is needed to make the biomedical journals go at this point. Maybe in the future we will have the kind of pre-print server acceptance that math and physics have in ArXiv and we can compete with BMC and PLoS. If there are open source tools and the OA publishers start acting irresponsibly like the big subscription players do today, some of us will probably jump ship and try to make a go of it as a free or almost free service.

CDC frequently pays for special issues of journals. They also have paid for publication in jorunals with page charges like the Southeast Asia Journal of Tropical Medicine & Public Health (ironically, they let their subscription that journal lapse for a while). That journal is a regional with very wide reach and fairly decent edirorial content, whereas, US- or Europena-based pay to publish journals historically have been bottom feeders with editorial content that couln't be published elsewhere.

The great thing about OA is that it gives non-professionals (like myself) direct access to frontline scientific publishing. Satan would be ice-skating to work before I'd fork out $40 to read a 15 year old paper in a subscription-only journal.

It's not often (that I've noticed) that the public are factored in to the OA equation. Are they?