OA interviews: Kamila Markram, Frontiers

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With the raft of policies and mandates that impact researchers and their institutions Sian Harris asks a range of publishers and publishing services companies about their approaches to open access

Kamila Markram, co-founder and CEO of Frontiers

Our approach has always been much more than just providing free access to research. The whole publishing process at Frontiers is community-driven, with active researchers taking all editorial decisions. We take great care in building our journal editorial boards: over 45,000 of the world’s leading researchers have joined us, many from top universities, making the Frontiers editorial board the largest in publishing.

We developed a Collaborative Peer Review to improve the quality of articles. This provides a rigorous in-depth review that is also constructive, fair and transparent. Reviewers have a mandate to work with authors directly in our online Collaborative Review Forum, and their names are disclosed upon publication to acknowledge their contribution and to improve constructiveness. The entire process is highly efficient and fast, driven by our own software and workflows, enabling constructive interactions without administrative efforts from our academic editors and reviewers. 

Frontiers journals publish articles through a gold OA publishing model that requires authors to pay an article-processing fee upon article acceptance. This enables articles to be published immediately without restriction. We also offer many article types that are free of charge. For example, Frontiers Focused Reviews, which are reviews of an original discovery, are published for free.

In the past few years, a growing number of governments, institutions and funders have implemented progressive OA policies. One key challenge we need to overcome, however, is the lack of a unifying policy across these stakeholders. For example, some policies favour green OA with varying embargo periods, while others prefer gold. This patchwork of policies has caused confusion among researchers and institutions, and hinders progress towards universal gold OA. Also, most stakeholders do not, or cannot, enforce their OA policies, which has led to a slower uptake. But overall I think we have already reached a tipping point and all research will be made accessible via gold OA within the next decade.

Another important challenge is the cultural change required in the mindset of the researchers themselves. Some academic communities are already well versed in the practice of gold or green OA.

However, funding is, of course, also a challenge. Having to pay to publish articles is a novel concept for many academics. A common misconception, often wrongly propagated in blogs and sometimes picked up in established media, is that online OA publishing is low-cost. Yet it’s far from cheap to hire staff, produce high-quality article versions in PDF, XML and HTML, build and maintain software to process articles, store articles and associated files associated permanently on the internet, archive them in repositories, and many other operations.

The key to addressing this challenge is advocacy: to explain OA publishing and its costs, and to show that publishing in subscription journals is not free either. The latter charge for colour figures and nowadays also for OA options; in the end somebody always pays, in this case libraries, often excessively. Many more funders and institutions are now offering funds for their affiliated researchers to publish in gold OA journals, and this should be less of a challenge in the years to come. For authors from developing countries and others who genuinely do not have the means to pay, Frontiers offers waivers.

Initially, our radically different approach to peer review was met with some skepticism from editors and reviewers, because it requires more time and work, all invested into somebody else’s paper. Also, traditionally reviews are anonymous and can be quite harsh in the life sciences, whereas at Frontiers we insist on a collaborative and transparent approach where names of reviewers are published on articles.

Authors are very positive about our Collaborative Peer Review, because it is fair, constructive and transparent; they have a say in the review process, can interact directly with the reviewers and work with them towards consensus. Our approach is also very well supported by research communities. Today, we count well over 100,000 authors and 45,000 scientists, researchers, clinicians and engineers on our editorial board. These numbers, the high satisfaction rates and the constant feedback we get shows that academics approve of Frontiers highly principled mission and community-driven approach to publishing.

As stated by the Berlin Declaration, OA is about free access and removing barriers to reuse. We believe that science, medicine and engineering are the very fabric of modern society, and that research should be freely available for the benefit of humanity. Hence, we publish under the CC-BY licence, which permits reuse and distribution without restriction as long as the original source and authors are acknowledged.

This licence has become the gold standard for OA publishers and I think it addresses the demands of today, for example, for text and data mining. We have also optimised our article XMLs and web platform and will make API access to our content available to allow easy text mining.

At Frontiers, we support the principle of making data freely available and we are in the process of developing new article types for data publication as well as establishing collaborations with other organisations to link data to articles. We do not go as far as making it a requirement for authors to make their data openly available when they publish an article but we offer authors the choice and provide them with the possibility to link their article to data.

OA in itself is an important innovation that was almost non-existent a decade ago. But at Frontiers, we have already started to think beyond OA and how we can disseminate articles more effectively.

While in the 1960s fewer than a hundred thousand research articles were published worldwide each year, in 2012 the research community published approximately 2.5 million articles, and by 2020 it will be four million. We need new mechanisms to disseminate this research in a targeted, personalised way. This is why on top of our OA journal platform we built the Frontiers Research Network, a social networking technology geared towards the needs of academics. The mission of this Research Network technology is to make researchers and their work visible to maximise their discoverability, reach and impact. Our algorithms disseminate research articles automatically to the appropriate readership, while at the same time boosting impact.

This approach combines OA publishing with social networking, and I think this is the future.

We also believe research should and can be understood by the public, including children. That’s why we launched Frontiers for Young Minds – an OA journal with an editorial board of kids. Authors translate their ‘real’ research articles into a language that kids can understand and they, the kids themselves, review this simplified article with established scientist mentors. This has been a rewarding experience and phenomenally well received, but also has a mission to take OA to the next level.