'OA creates new opportunities'

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The open-access publishing model enables new types of journals that could not be published under the traditional subscription model, believes Matthew Cockerill, publisher of BioMed Central.

For many years, publishers, scientists, academics, librarians, funders and government officials have debated the value of greater public access to the results of scientific research. The internet has fundamentally changed the economics of distributing scientific research results, and has made the idea of universal access to research a realistic prospect. The number of open-access journals continues to increase rapidly, as does the proportion of scientific research that is freely available online.

As open-access publishing has emerged it has attracted both enthusiasm and scepticism in almost equal measure. Advocates see open access as the natural way to disseminate scientific information. Scientific research is undertaken in order to advance human knowledge and should be accessible to everyone. Open access breaks down the barriers that obstruct scientific communication and slow the pace of discovery. The benefits are clearly apparent to the public health organisations, research funders and academic institutions that have flocked to endorse open access.

Meanwhile, open access’s detractors have suggested that open access does not offer a sustainable business model, that it might not deliver the same standard of peer review as traditional journals, and that it is an unnecessary attempt to fix a system that isn’t broken.

Scepticism and debate are healthy, especially if the debate is informed by evidence. In the case of open-access publishing, the track record of existing open-access journals now demonstrates that the open-access model can succeed in the real world. In particular, open-access journals have demonstrated their ability to operate as a sustainable business, and to publish research of high quality – validated by the industry’s leading metrics.

Perhaps more importantly, the success of open-access publications is also stimulating the research community to rethink the parameters of scientific publication, and to consider how the open-access model can provide a channel for the rapid publication of more research results in formats that allow their effective compilation and reuse.

This evolution of the scientific literature promises to allow the findings of researchers and practitioners all over the world to be made available like never before.

Enabling a specialist focus

An example of open-access success can be seen in Malaria Journal. Launched in 2001, this was one of the first of BioMed Central’s independent journals. The founding editor, Marcel Hommel, professor of tropical at the Liverpool School of Tropical Medicine, UK and now a medical director at the to Institut Pasteur in Paris, France, was keen to start a journal that specialised exclusively in malaria because it was a large and growing field. Approximately 1,500 articles about malaria were published in 2000, while by 2006 more than 2,500 articles relating to malaria were published annually.

Hommel, however, was aware that the traditional subscription-based model of paper-based journals would not be realistic for such an endeavour. While malaria is a field of study with hugely important implications for global health, it would be difficult, if not impossible, to launch a subscription journal with such a narrow focus. Malaria had been covered for years by a variety of journals, but none had previously been dedicated exclusively to the topic.

A screenshot from Malaria Journal

Although open-access publishing was still in its infancy, Hommel realised that it provided a more appropriate model for a malaria-specific journal – especially since many of the articles would be of benefit to the developing world, where access to expensive subscription journals is extremely limited.

Hommel set about creating a system for his journal that would ensure that articles of the highest quality would be published. He recruited a geographically-diverse editorial board, comprising 18 of the top 50 most-cited authors between 2003 and 2006. He also ensured that the members had diverse specialties, because malaria as a subject covers many disciplines, from the bench to the bedside to the field. Board members included scientists studying the molecular aspects of the parasite, in addition to researchers studying health-sector policy as it relates to malaria. To ensure that the board continued to be productive and evolve to changes in types of articles submitted, he instituted a policy mandating 20 per cent board turnover every year.

In addition to ensuring a rigorous peer-review process, Hommel also insisted on extensive copy-editing for all articles. Many authors are not native English speakers and, no matter how valuable the research, traditional journals often reject manuscripts if they are not written lucidly. By helping researchers copy-edit their articles, Hommel ensured that language skills would not stand as a barrier to publication.

And how is this journal faring now? Five years after publishing the first article, Malaria Journal received a stamp of approval with its first Impact Factor of 2.14, ranking the journal second in the field of tropical medicine. In addition, the journal now publishes more articles about malaria every year than all but one other journal and is growing at a much faster rate.

Helping educate doctors

BioMed Central’s much newer Journal of Medical Case Reports benefits from the open access publication model in a different way. Launched in early 2007, Journal of Medical Case Reports is an example of a type of journal that is made possible by the open-access, online-only model. In recent years, traditional subscription journals have published fewer and fewer case reports. This is because they take up valuable pages, are of limited interest when seen in isolation, and are unlikely to be highly cited. Still, case reports serve a vital role in medicine, often serving as the first data points that suggest a new hypothesis.

Founded by Michael Kidd, professor of general practice at the University of Sydney, Australia, Journal of Medical Case Reports is a peer-reviewed publication that is addressing this issue.

Clinical case reports are an essential part of a doctor’s education and provide valuable insight to researchers studying a range of diseases, symptoms and treatments. Larger studies of a given health problem overlook the individual patient in favour of aggregate symptoms and results. Case reports, on the other hand, are focused entirely on the individual and can provide unique insight into rare side effects of new medications, early warning indicators of potential new diseases and a variety of additional information. It is through case reports that early information on AIDS, Lyme disease and toxic shock syndrome were first reported. Doctors can use these case reports to compare symptoms and treatments while researchers can sift through an archival database of previous case reports to search for patterns and correlations.

While case reports provide valuable information, they also serve as an essential teaching tool. By aggregating these reports, Journal of Medical Case Reports is allowing medical educators to sift through thousands of cases for classroom resource material. In addition, the journal is also encouraging more doctors to write these reports. Writing case reports is a valuable way for doctors to learn about scientific authorship and to build up the skills and confidence necessary to contribute to the universe of medial knowledge.

By creating new opportunities for research publication, the Journal of Medical Case Reports expands the store of medical knowledge, and has the potential to provide every medical practitioner with a channel to contribute to the bigger picture – it could almost be described as YouTube for the medical profession.

Providing a balanced picture

Open-access journals publish a wide range of peer-reviewed scientific information. All journals, open access or not, aim to publish exciting and significant results, but an important aspect of many open-access journals is that they also encourage the publication of more incremental advances, and even negative results, if properly performed. Why is this important? Because, if journals only publish ‘exciting’ results, the resulting publication bias’ seriously skews the literature. In order to see the big picture, researchers need to have access to an unbiased view of the results of all soundly-conducted studies.

In addition, by making it possible for a larger fraction of research results to be published, open-access journals provide more raw data for researchers to use in subsequent studies.

Another benefit of a policy of publishing more research is that the perceived significance of research changes over time. Articles that are initially overlooked may ultimately prove to be fundamental breakthroughs.

Lastly, open access, by making the underlying research articles freely available and reusable, opens up myriad possibilities for enhancing and extending that research. This includes the use of computational techniques to mine research articles for information, and the use of Web 2.0 technologies such as blogs, tagging and wikis to allow the research community itself to enrich articles with additional content and connections.

By providing an optimal combination of quality and quantity, open access delivers a new model of publishing that can meet the challenges of 21st century science.