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Offering choice in the era of open access

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The topic of open-access publishing has both champions and denouncers but Graham Vaughan Lees, founding editor and publishing director of TheScientificWorldJOURNAL, believes, from his experience, that the real issue to be considered is how to make best use of the internet, irrespective of who pays

In December 2003 The Wall Street Journal ranked open-access publishing as one of the 10 most important health stories of the year. Its origins can be traced back to the acquisition of the USA-based Cell Press, by Elsevier of the Netherlands, in 1998. Some pre-eminent scientists, most notably Harold Varmus, who was a Nobel laureate and director of the National Institutes of Health at the time, decided to spearhead a campaign on a 'freedom of information' or rather a 'free information' ticket. The result, E-biomed, was announced in May 1999 and later became PubMedCentral: an archive of life-science journal literature operated by The National Center for Biotechnology Information (NCBI), which was the architect of PubMed and other databases.

The idea came from a laudable desire to have the entire world's medical literature available in one place for full-text searching, but it was framed in a politically charged debate about free and public access to medical information. The argument was that taxpayers pay for the research, so the results of it should be available to all. Despite this being eloquently and forcefully expounded by venerated and accomplished scientists, I believe the argument was, and still is, specious.

Scientific and medical advances are incremental. The vast majority of articles are, arguably, of no value to people outside the field. Any true breakthroughs are usually published in high-profile journals - and the newspapers are full of reports about advances, even when those advances are a long way from advancing treatment regimes. There is no shortage of information and scientists were not being denied access to it by pricing policies and profits of commercial publishers, nor 'surpluses' of society journals. Some journals may give little perceived news-value but serve a real purpose for their specialised audiences. They can be very expensive, but does that mean massive profits or poor distribution? In fact, there are many unprofitable journals and it takes several years for a new journal to recoup investment.

What the movement crystallised into was a debate on whether authors or readers should pay. 'Vanity publishing' - where the author pays for publication because the publisher cannot recoup costs from sales - was thus given a new seal of approval from eminent scientists and was again in vogue.

Conferences such as the one at the New York Academy of Medicine in 2000 were set up by proponents of PubMedCentral and BioMedCentral to advocate 'open access', even though the term had not yet been coined. Advocates of the process, including Harold Varmus and Patrick Brown, of Stanford University - home of HighWire Press - began the New York event by circulating an open letter urging scientific publishers to allow the research reports that have appeared in their journals to be distributed freely by independent, online public libraries of science. This letter was signed by some 34,000 scientists from 180 countries.

The first of a new breed
This group went on to form the Public Library of Science (PLoS) with Michael Eisen of the Ernest Orlando Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory and the University of California at Berkeley. They professed to become publishers 'to demonstrate that high-quality journals can flourish without charging for access'. The funding came from the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation, which is set up mostly to preserve the environment. The $9m grant enabled PLoS to launch PLoS Biology and then PLoS Medicine. Authors were to pay (currently $1,500) to have their articles published, and the readers could access them free-of-charge. Of course, no commercial publisher would have the luxury of such a budget to launch a journal.

It seems clear that the model is not in itself immediately self-sustaining, a fact that even its proponents at the early conferences conceded. There are many costs in the initiative, including more staff, more overheads and more expenses than would be tolerated in a commercial environment. Other revenue streams such as institutional backing and a print copy, to which libraries can subscribe, may help to offset some costs.

Whatever the details, what seems to be an inescapable truth is that the open-access movement has not been a panacea that has reduced the costs of publishing or of publications. In fact, more journals have been launched; there are well over 200 open-access journals; and there has been no obvious sign of traditional journals disappearing at any increased rate. It seems that there are sufficient editors and authors to fill any space created. Is the public aware that it is spending more - and getting less, if, as is the intention, commercial publishers' taxable profits are indeed being squeezed? Probably not, but the original argument was not actually, in my opinion, for the benefit of the general public.

What happened was that the world fell into two seemingly irreconcilable camps. One simply wanted open access, while the others wanted it to go away and were either wondering what the fuss was about, or were happy with the status quo.

From what I've said so far, you might conclude that I am not in favour of the open-access movement - but that would not be true. I am merely suggesting that some of the intellectual motives for the initiative are no longer compelling. The journals being published under the open-access banner are not particularly innovative. They are in the same mould as existing journals. And there are many publications in the private sector - both society and commercial - that even have a similar business model through page charges and subscription revenues. The difference, and it is a big difference, is that distribution is guaranteed and access is pervasive.

Initiatives such as CrossRef, the enhanced navigation tools between articles, and cross database searching, actually have a much greater impact. In fact, the real innovation is not so much the open-access movement, but the internet itself.

A different approach
TheScientificWorldJOURNAL (TSWJ) was launched in 2001 as an innovative way to gather, publish and organise scientific and medical information.

TSWJ was designed from the ground up to utilise the power of the internet. At the time, it was clear to us that the idea of creating electronic equivalents of print journals was always going to be of limited value. Once the paper journals had gone online, one would just have increased the number of journals. We noticed that the most important journals were always broad-based, so we asked ourselves how we could create a new publishing environment with broad appeal.

The other characteristic that we observed about scientific information, and its distribution, comes as a direct result of the way journals had been created. Journals exist for several purposes. Firstly, there are general journals (like Science, Nature and The Lancet) and then there are journals according to the system being studied (like journals in neuroscience, immunology, gastroenterology, microbiology or environmental sciences). Another type of journal focuses on the process being studied (such as development, aging or cancer) or the methodology or approach being used (such as cell biology, biochemistry or genetics). On top of this, there are artificial divisions such as by society (American Academy of Neurology's Neurology, versus the American Neurological Association's Annals of Neurology) or geography (American J of ..., the European J of ..., the British J of ... and the International J of ...).

If a biomedical scientist was studying, for example, genetic variants with disturbed development of heart muscle in a zebrafish, he or she could publish in a general journal (if it met newsworthiness criteria), in any number of journals in genetics, development or cardiology and even neuroscience. Conversely, for a potential reader of that paper there might be, say, 200 credible journals to choose from. The main guide to the reader is that if the article is in an obscure journal then it is less likely to be important.

The existing system evolved for management reasons; the volume of work needed to be managed, and it was divided up rather arbitrarily. The result is rather ungainly 'pigeon-holing' of information. The only controlling factor was that the article could only be in one journal.

We took these factors into account when designing TSWJ. TSWJ recognises the multidisciplinary nature of science, which resists clear-cut definitions. A paper can be genetics, neuroscience, environmental toxicology, endocrinology, reproduction, call biology, and development all at the same time. Therefore we created a broad journal, from biomedicine to environmental sciences, that was organised into overlapping 'domains'. Each domain is designed to have principal editors, associate editors and an editorial board. A submitted article may be assigned to an editor of one domain and refereed by editors in related domains. The article, if accepted, will be published in all the relevant domains. Scientists understand the logic and value of this almost instantly. Authors can choose to address all their potential audiences simultaneously.

Meanwhile, readers can find relevant material for them by starting at a domain, for example, in genetics, knowing that articles with a genetic component submitted as neuroscience will be there. The listing of the domains for a particular article tells the reader much more than keywords alone.

TSWJ's domains are navigational tools rather than barriers defining exclusivity. The articles in domains have the same citation reference of TheScientificWorldJOURNAL. The domains do not operate like traditional sections. This is very different from, for example, BMC, PLoS or Elsevier, where the divisions between their journals are real.

The other factor we took into account was that there is no guarantee that scientists would continue to publish in quantal units of 'the article'. Scientists generate data that get converted into articles, and which appear in many journals. The first in a series of experiments (say a new receptor R1) can be published in a broad journal, the next (Receptor R1a) in a specialised journal, the next (R1b) in a narrower journal still until there is almost no further interest (in receptors R1c-f). But a collection of the data (a 'dataset') with all the results would be extremely valuable. In TSWJ it is possible to publish such works. An article points to the dataset where the dataset can change as new information is uncovered and can be published. A traditional publisher, which measures and charges for articles and pages, cannot do this easily within its growth plans. If scientists find a way of rewarding each other for the bodies of information generated rather than the number of articles published, traditional journals would have a hard time. TSWJ can be as flexible as the market requests and requires.

Unfortunately, like any new journal, we suffer from our newness. We are accepted by PubMed and other databases for indexing, but ISI does not yet include us in its Science Citation Index and we do not have an Impact Factor (IF). It is unfortunate that scientists and funding agencies have embraced the IF of a journal - not an article - as a measure of a scientist's worth.

The business model
TSWJ started as a 'pay-per-view' journal in response to the market's complaint that with articles bundled in journals and journals bundled in licences, they were paying for what they did not need. More than 40,000 signed up for our 'PuPAlerts' (Personal User Profile Alerts). Unfortunately, all budgets were tied up with others' subscriptions and licences so we switched emphasis to a plan centred on subscriptions and site licences. In 2005 we have created a pricing plan for individuals, laboratories and departments, and set institute prices according to the number of FTEs (full time equivalents).

In our original plan, we had always thought that some authors would prefer to pay and make their articles free to readers. In May 2003 we asked our 700 or so editors what they thought. Those that were fully aware of the open-access model (around 70 per cent of them) were divided on whether they preferred libraries or authors paying. Some were against open access as an exclusive business model, because journals set up exclusively as open access are effectively 'compulsory publishing fee' journals. Since we had no desire to alienate half of our community, we decided to give authors a choice and coined the term 'open choice'. Authors were informed of the plan and some even decided to pay to have previously published articles made open access.

Another important reason for giving a freedom of choice was that we did not want to know that each manuscript submitted really came with a cheque attached. We gave the choice to authors only after the manuscript was accepted. The first TheScientificWorldJOURNAL articles to be published as open access appeared in September 2003.

We differ from some other publishers in that we offer open access on a sliding scale - it's less for shorter articles and starts at only $450. We pass on savings to subscribers by charging less for subscriptions. We have also introduced in 2005 an institutional OpenAccessWaiver whereby institutes can pay in order that all articles from authors at their institute be published (if accepted) as open access with no further charge. This is similar in some ways to BMC's and PLoS' memberships but different in that there is no limit on the number of articles (BMC's is allegedly equivalent to an 'advance') and unlike PLoS we do not offer a discount on OA fees but make it free.

The way forward
Open access is here to stay but its definition may need to change. To some, open access is coupled with a complete freedom to copy, host, and store articles anywhere. With this situation there would be no imposed restriction; authors' words could be edited out of context; and published information would no longer be peer-reviewed.

At the mundane level, if an author suddenly wishes to correct or add to his or her article, how can that be done effectively if the article is now hosted potentially anywhere? The freedom-for-all becomes a free-for-all, with nobody protecting use of the information for other purposes. Even though TheScientificWorld fully endorses the authors' rights to retain their copyright, publishers and publications still have a role to provide the fully authenticated version of the original article and any modified forms. For this reason, TSWJ is open access on the TSWJ website only. This is a not a more restrictive but a more responsible approach.

For TSWJ, we have plans to improve the functionality of the site - it will migrate to a new host very soon - and we shall revise our article design. We have always offered HTML and PDF versions but will give more functionality in the coming months. Editorially, we shall be revising the domains and are organising them into clusters to bring a stronger focus and facilitate navigation. We have around 700 editors and will be inviting many more to fill perceived 'gaps'. Our 2,000 or so authors have published more than 500 peer-reviewed articles and reviews. Around 300 more articles - also peer reviewed - have been published in collections or e-books.

But our real future will depend on editors, authors and libraries supporting us. The key will always be quality. In that sense, TheScientificWorldJOURNAL is quite traditional.

Graham Vaughan Lees, with significant contributions from Anne Vindenes Allen, managing director of TheScientificWorld.