FEATURE
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Partners in open access

John Murphy finds out why start-up company Co-Action Publishing has chosen the open-access model

Just over two years ago, in the heart of the Nordic countryside, three women embarked on a new venture: to launch a journal publisher and consultancy service. As well as its all-female founding team and base away from any established commercial or publishing hub, the new publisher, Co-Action Publishing, has bucked tradition by opting for the open-access (OA) publishing model.

The three founders, Anne Bindslev, Caroline Sutton and Lena Wistrand, are all former executives of the Nordic division of Taylor and Francis. In their old jobs they had noticed a growing interest in OA from the large publisher’s society clients and they concluded that this was the most promising approach for a new, small publisher.

Sutton said: ‘2007 was an interesting time. BioMed Central and PLoS been around for some time and Hindawi had converted its last two subscription titles to OA. Such publishers had shown that it really was a viable model, but at the same time there were not too many people doing it – few of the established publishing houses were entertaining the idea of OA publishing – so we could still be early into the market.’

Sutton does not think that it would be possible today to launch a new publishing house based on subscription journals. ‘It takes five or six years for a journal to really become established enough to generate a profit. With OA and a publication fee model you are earning revenue at the same time as you are incurring costs,’ she explained.

‘We used our own savings rather than having an external investor and have tried to make everything as virtual as possible. It surprises me that more small OA publishing companies haven’t been formed already.’

The starting point

Co-Action Publishing began with a social-science journal, Ethics and Global Politics, which Sutton believes was the first OA social-science journal from a commercial publisher. ‘It’s doing fantastically well,’ she said. ‘We went back to classical publishing principles and found a really good editor who recruited a strong editorial board and looked at how we could make sure the authors were treated really well.’

The company also publishes Food & Nutrition Research, Global Health Action and Journal of Oral Microbiology. But Co-Action Publishing is not just about publishing its own journals. It sees itself as partly a publisher and partly as a professional partner to other organisations looking to get involved in OA publishing.

Indeed that is the philosophy behind the company’s choice of name. ‘All of our partners – from authors, to societies we publish on behalf of, to funding agencies – should feel that we are indeed partners; that we are creating and accomplishing something together,’ explained Sutton, who added that the name “CO-Action” also includes “OA”.

The company’s journals have a range of financial models – publication fees, grants by research councils, or a combination of publication fees and partner support.

Global Health Action, for example, is a joint venture with the Centre for Global Health Research at Umeå University in Sweden and Food & Nutrition Research is published on behalf of the Swedish Nutrition Foundation. The company is also discussing and working with a number of research groups who are interested in founding a journal in partnership. ‘If people come to us with a good idea then we will not reject it just because it does not fit the publication fee model. We will look for other ways of funding. We are a small company so we can afford to experiment,’ said Sutton. ‘When it comes to expanding our portfolio we are looking for areas that simply beg for open access. With Ethics and Global Politics, for example, there is an interest outside academia.’

Another project the company has embarked on is to provide services to other groups which want to create their own open access venture. They can, of course, hand a whole venture over but otherwise they can buy ‘pieces of help’ in packages put together in partnership with its suppliers.

Sutton believes there will be a lot of growth in independent projects from groups that can run a publication themselves but might need help in setting up their systems. Co-Action Publishing has a new tool to help with this, called OpenAccessSolutions.com.

Sutton said: ‘Some may want the whole society publishing package or people may just want pieces of the puzzle. We can also advise people on getting their publications noticed and indexed by ISI and Medline, for example. That is the sort of thing that an experienced publisher can bring to a society or group of researchers.’

Industry links

As a small company with a base outside of the world’s publishing centres, Sutton believes that it is critical to talk with others in the industry. The company is a member of STM. It has also been involved with other OA publishers such as PLoS, Hindawi and BioMed Central in setting up a new trade organisation to specifically address the interests of OA publishers – the Open Access Scholarly Publishers Association (OASPA).

‘OA is no longer something sensational, but we are facing both challenges and opportunities as we work to build a serious industry,’ explained Sutton. ‘It is extremely useful to cooperate to meet these challenges, move OA forward and set industry standards. Being a member of OASPA, and particularly a member of the board, gives us the confidence to continue working as a small publisher because we know our work is in line with industry standards.’

Challenges and opportunities

Working together is valuable because there are still plenty of challenges with OA. Sutton said: ‘The main challenge associated with marketing OA journals is to convey to researchers that we are offering a service. Particularly when we ask authors to pay a publication fee, it is important that they understand what they are paying for. Among other things, OA generally promises wide distribution and this means we owe it to authors to ensure that their individual articles are being read by as many as possible.’

However, one of the advantages of being an OA publisher is that all the marketing resources can basically be funnelled in much the same direction – towards readers/authors. The material is also electronic and freely available so that, with one click, someone can be experiencing an OA journal without any payment barriers. This has made it important to think about research communities and how they work online, according to Sutton. ‘Today I spend as much time monitoring relevant blogs as I do identifying relevant conferences at which to market a journal,’ she pointed out.

Tools for the job

There are also plenty of tools available to support OA. One of the most important tools that the company uses is the Open Journals System (OJS) content management package developed by the Public Knowledge Project at Simon Fraser University. This tool is open source.

‘In setting up our infrastructure, we were looking for a solid but still affordable solution for the review process, production monitoring and the overall publishing platform, including a content management system. We had a good deal of experience with various commercial systems, but our choice fell on the OJS.

‘All key functions were handled in the system and there were many useful plug ins that could be added.'

The company has also carried out some customisation and configurations to comply with its own needs such as dealing with multiple journals and a books platform, and using external suppliers.

A good start

The company is still very young and small – the work is mainly done by the three founders and selected freelancers as required. However, things are going well so far, according to Sutton.

‘Given that Co-Action Publishing ended its first year with a small deficit and this year we expect to break even, I have to say that our formula for OA publishing is working for us.’

The benefits go beyond business issues though: ‘Working as an OA publisher is professionally stimulating,’ said Sutton. ‘On the one hand, the ties we have to the research community, to libraries, research councils, and academia in general are much stronger – there is a sense that we are working from the same side of the fence.

On the other hand, active contributors to OA publishing discussions are talented people who dare to envision where scientific communications may be heading. This combination offers a fantastic platform from which to design innovative solutions and create new opportunities that are beneficial to the research community,’ she concluded.

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