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Acquisition raises profile of open-access publishing

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Last autumn, Springer bought open-access publisher BioMed Central. John Murphy finds out what this means for the companies

Just a few years ago, open-access (OA) publishing was regarded as a fringe activity by the big publishers. Since then, however, companies have slowly started to break ranks and offer something resembling OA. Springer Group’s recent purchase of BioMed Central, however, has thrust it from being a ‘toe in the water’ OA publisher to probably the number-one OA publisher in terms of articles published.

BioMed Central was founded by Science Navigation Group and began publishing in May 2000. It was the first fully-commercial OA publisher at a time when major publishers were saying that they could not see how OA could be commercially sustainable. Science Navigation’s chairman, Vitek Tracz, had the idea after several of the large research funders in biomedical science started saying they believed that scientific research should be made available to everyone without charge. Not only that, but some big institutions like the National Institute for Health, Wellcome Trust and Howard Hughes Medical Institute were actually prepared to pay publication charges as part of research grants.

‘The funders have indicated that they want as many people as possible to see and benefit from the research they pay for. Scientists have also shown that they want as wide exposure as possible – not only to advance knowledge, but also to build their own careers,’ observed Matthew Cockerill, publisher of BioMed Central.

BMC now publishes some 196 journals, most of which follow the gold OA or ‘author-pays’ model. It claims to have 760,000 registered readers and, in 2007, recorded 25 million page views per month. Authors must submit their articles online, and to a particular format, but apart from that the procedure is the same as for any other journal. The articles are selected by editors and referred for peer review. Some publications have anonymous editors and reviewers, some have them named. The big difference, of course, from the traditional approach to journal publishing, is that the author pays fees of about $1,000 for the article to be processed. There are discounts given to reviewers and others, such as authors from less economically-advantaged countries, can have their fees waived. Institutions can also become members of BMC, which means they do not have to pay publication charges for individual articles.

Future plans

Following the acquisition, BioMed Central (BMC), together with sister brands Chemistry Central and PhysMath Central, will be run as a separate division in the Springer Science and Business Media Group. At the moment it is complimenting the Springer’s own OA publishing venture, called Open Choice. Open Choice allows authors whose articles are accepted to its subscription titles to pay an article processing fee. That article will then be freely available online from the date of publication as well as being published as part of the subscription title.

The article processing fees for Springer’s Open Choice option are approximately $3,000. However, the company has said there are no immediate plans to increase BMC charges, which have proved a major draw to authors and have resulted in rapid growth for BMC’s titles.

Cockerill said that OA journals had now established themselves, and that many titles attain high impact factors and citation rates from Thomson ISI. He said the industry had clearly moved past the complaints of subscription publishers that they would be motivated purely by commercial interests.

‘I have not heard that one for quite a long time now. Journals become successful precisely because they do not publish any old tat. Our editors have no financial interest in choosing articles and the success of our titles shows that the quality is the same,’ said Cockerill.

‘Open-access and subscription publishing are not necessarily in competition,’ he continued. ‘Derk Haank, our CEO, has said that Springer is agnostic when it comes to business model. There will always be an opportunity for publishers to add value to information and to sell that for a subscription.’

Cockerill believes that BMC will be able to grow even faster under Springer’s wing, and its business model may even transfer to other areas of publishing where institutions are prepared to pay processing fees for editoriallydriven publication. He said that governments, international NGOs and other organisations may also find they could gain benefit from funding the publication of research in other fields.

‘Springer will give us a lot in terms of infrastructure at the back end and allow us to do what we presently do more efficiently. We have gained a certain amount of expertise in running an electronic publishing process with peer review and there is no reason to suppose that it is limited to publishing biomedical research,’ he concluded.