Will learned societies signal the change?

Reforming science publishing will affect more than just the dissemination of science: it could catalyse more fundamental changes. The learned societies might be best placed to shape the outcome, suggests Vanessa Spedding

Rarely has a proposal triggered such a flurry of initiatives, statements, petitions, reports, reactions and inquiries as the concept of open access publishing. Although 'open access' is an umbrella phrase for a set of concepts (depending on the interpretation of the word 'open' and the preferred means of facilitating the openness), the proposal is a fundamentally simple, and by now familiar, one. It is that the conventional method of disseminating scientific results via subscription-based journals - in which publishers claim the copyright and charge research organisations to subscribe to the end result - be replaced by a method in which the research organisations pay instead for their researchers to make use of electronic and web technologies to publish their work, the authors reserve the copyright to their material, and everyone else can read and download it free of charge.

The proponents of open access publishing argue that it will benefit science overall, since access to scientific information is an essential component of the research process. They view the current system as unfair on a number of levels, and particularly for the taxpayer, since it is often public money that pays for research and then pays again for researchers to read the results of this research. Price hikes by journal publishers, designed to maintain their profit margins in spite of falling subscriptions, have further polarised the situation.

The debate has been advanced recently by a number of reports and high-profile initiatives (see box: 'Open access initiatives and investigations' below). Also fuelling the fire is a boat-rocking position statement from the Wellcome Trust - strongly in favour of open access - following its publication of a comprehensive (but not unanimously embraced) report on science publishing in October last year (see box: 'The Wellcome Trust's position' below). As it is the world's largest charity dedicated to funding scientific research, the Wellcome Trust's views on such matters are taken seriously.

On the broader scale, what's coming to light from these exchanges is that the implications of a shift in publishing model are significant, not just for their impact on commercial publishers, or on the means of publication, but on fundamental aspects of scientific culture.

For an illustration of this rather extravagant statement, consider the possible repercussions for one entity in particular, one that has for hundreds of years been a pillar of the research communities, but which may find itself diminished by a major shift in the economic model for research publishing: the learned (or scholarly) society. The activities of many of these organisations largely depend on revenues from journal-publishing operations, and many of those activities are directed towards furthering the interests of scientific research and the scientists themselves. What will open access mean for these bodies, and the scientists they support? The feeling within them is one of piqued defiance. For years the dissemination of scientific information has been a worthwhile activity and a respectable way of making ends meet. But now that market forces have lumped the not-for-profit publishers into the same category as the price-hiking corporates, they're feeling just as much of the heat. While it's not seemly to shout too loud about the importance of profits from publishing activities for their survival, the societies don't want to be overlooked, either.

Giving thought to these bodies at the fulcrum provides clues to some of the less obvious implications of the increasingly heated row raging between those at its outer limits. The societies are made up of the very people who must choose between paying to read and paying to publish; between placing the duty of dissemination - and its rewards - into the hands of others and grasping it for themselves. Elements of their identity depend on this choice. The learned societies could be the bellwethers that signal the storms ahead.

The row has been officially aired at a recent inquiry held by a UK Parliamentary committee, the Select Committee on Science and Technology, into whether the scientific publishing market is a fair and competitive one. At the time of writing, the outcome of the inquiry -its recommendation to the UK Government - is unknown. But, while underway, it did an excellent job of teasing out the various perspectives and comparing the pros and cons of the two main viewpoints. (See box below: 'The Two Tribes', which includes the Web location of the transcripts and, in due course, the final report).

The inquiry aroused real passions, as Ian Gibson, chair of the Select Committee, told Research Information mid-way through. He said there was 'anger and vindictiveness emerging all the time,' and: 'It's certainly a burning issue. The feeling among the Committee is one of great sympathy for what Harold Varmus [of the Public Library of Science] has done.' But he also acknowledged the challenges: 'It's a very complicated situation, which needs unravelling. We're worried about the effects on peer review, which is fundamental to science, and we've yet to talk to the university libraries. The role of the learned societies in publication is also of some concern.'

Concern for these bastions of traditional science is hardly surprising: what will happen to them if their surpluses are no longer maintained? Is the learned society under threat?

As might be expected, Sally Morris, chief executive of the Association of Learned and Professional Society Publishers (ALPSP), holds finely balanced views on the subject. She agrees that open access, as a model, has potential, accepting that 'the objective of open access ... is entirely in line with the objectives of learned societies,' but she also believes there are major questions still to be answered about its financial viability and is keen to point out that the emergence of electronic publishing has already had a positive impact. Of course, Morris is extremely concerned about the effects of open access on the societies themselves.

'If it proved to reduce learned societies' often modest publishing income, this would have a knock-on effect on their other activities on behalf of their communities - education, conferences, research funding, bursaries.... Such a reduction would not necessarily be beneficial overall for the scientific community,' she explained. The ALPSP is currently conducting a survey into the impacts on learned society publishers of this shift.

In fact, many open access experiments are being conducted by these very organisations, for example the Institute of Physics (IoP) in the UK, which pioneered the fully open-access New Journal of Physics in partnership with the German physical society, Deutsche Physikalische Gesellschaft. Representing IoP at the parliamentary inquiry was its chief executive, Dr Julia King, who explained that the journal, while an impressive achievement, was not showing signs of financial sustainability. She expanded on her evidence in a conversation with Research Information, in which she said she thought the open access movement amounts to 'a lot of energy about something that's not yet at a stage when dramatic things are about to happen'.

  • Will other open-access journals follow the New Journal of Physics out of learned societies?

'On the other hand,' she went on, 'we shouldn't assume that there won't be changes. There have been some fantastic benefits from electronic publishing and they are hugely to be welcomed and encouraged ... it's healthy that we have an ongoing discussion and try out new things.' But she was keen to indicate other ways of achieving more access, such as consortia deals. 'It might end up with open access, but it might not; there are other perturbations that may be fed into the process along the way.'

Naturally, the IoP - and other organisations like it - would prefer to see the status quo maintained. Dr King hopes that the only government intervention resulting from this inquiry will be more support for deposit libraries and archiving methods, but she is aware that there are changes afoot, and takes a pragmatic approach to the possibilities, admitting: 'If [open access] happens, [it] could reduce what we [as a society] offer. But we can evolve too.' So the learned society is not necessarily under threat - but it may have to rethink its role.

In contrast to this open-minded approach is the rather defensive statement from the UK's Royal Society, which chose an economic argument to rubbish the potential of open access for science: 'Based on calculations for the 300 scientists supported through the Society's University Research Fellowship scheme ... it is estimated that an extra £1.96m per year would need to be found in order for these scientists to publish their work in scientific journals if they were required to pay a fee per paper.' This, says the society, would mean either the government meeting additional costs, or the society reducing either the funding per Fellow or the number of Fellows funded.

This argument, however, appears to run counter to the logic of Harold Varmus of the US Public Library of Science (PLoS), who in his evidence to the Select Committee reminded MPs that research funding is a closed system; finding money for an institution's researchers to publish in open access journals is no different, in essence, from finding money for the institution's libraries to subscribe to conventional journals.

Jan Velterop of BioMedCentral also rejects the Royal Society's standpoint but on a different basis: 'It is rather unfortunate that the Royal Society, by putting so much emphasis on the perception of extra costs to the UK, is taking such a parochial view on science, which is, after all, a global enterprise. ... Learned societies use their surpluses well, no doubt, but they should realise that their surpluses from subscription sales effectively represent subsidies from institutions and countries that may not be able to afford their subscriptions much longer.'

Velterop's comment highlights the fact that the discussion ultimately cannot ignore questions of global access and the 'digital divide,' an issue addressed in a recent OECD seminar and picked up in a response by a group of 48 not-for-profit publishers in the US that put together 'The DC Principles (see box: 'Open access initiatives and investigations' for both of these statements).

On all these points, the lens of the learned society is a valuable one through which to peer. If any organisation has already faced an identity crisis, it's the learned society - not from open access, but rather from the requirement to compete for survival in a ruthlessly commercial publishing market. And if any organisation can be said to have its feet in all the camps, it's the learned society. The learned societies, in their vulnerability, could be among the first to confront the impact of a shift in the publishing paradigm, but they are also among the best placed to prompt a re-set of the system in the interests of research. Get past the issue of where the money would come from for open access publishing - since it is quite literally academic - and there's suddenly room to consider much bigger, more exciting issues.

The primary shift that open access would bring is surely that market-driven publishing operations would no longer function as unofficial, international conduits for the small but significant proportions of research funds that they currently channel. Whether this is good or bad for science is a moot point - but the answer might well be signalled by an assessment of its bearing on the members of the scholarly societies.

The Two Tribes - the future of publishing?

Science publishing as it stands

  • Offers established, optimised methods for managing peer review.
  • Benefits from market competition, which encourages technological innovation and fast responses.
  • Supports deals in certain cases that allow free access for researchers in poorer countries (who might not afford open-access journals).
  • Involves no financial pressure to publish more papers (journals are paid for up-front by a flat subscription fee, so the fewer pages they publish, the greater their profits).
  • But does leave the research libraries at the behest of the open market, with access to research results determined by market forces. And wrests control of copyright from the scientists.

Open access models

  • Will require hard work to set up peer-review databases/processes and attract the best authors.
  • Cannot guarantee self-sufficiency before the cash runs out.
  • Invite the temptation to compromise on quality when cash is short: publishing more papers brings in more money.
  • Run on low margins, meaning resources for technological innovation and for archiving and preservation will be scarce.
  • But offer free access to scientific literature for all and control of research knowledge - and its dissemination - by researchers and research establishments.

Open access initiatives and investigations

March 2004

  • The UK Parliament's House of Commons Science and Technology Select Committee conducted an inquiry into scientific publications, specifically to look at 'access to journals within the scientific community, with particular reference to price and availability' and to ask 'what measures are being taken in government, the publishing industry and academic institutions to ensure that researchers, teachers and students have access to the publications they need in order to carry out their work effectively.' Transcripts of evidence sessions - and soon the report from that inquiry - are available at http://www.parliament.uk/parliamentary _committees/science_and_technology_committee.cfm
  • A dossier of the evidence presented has also been assembled at BioMedCentral's Web site: www.biomedcentral.com/openaccess/inquiry
  • Parallel activities in other European countries have not been apparent, but European Commissioner Erkii Liikanen, in charge of Enterprise and the Information Society, told Research Information that, at the end of March, the European Commission launched a study 'on the economic and technical evolution of the scientific publication markets in Europe,' to report within a year. 'We expect that by then a clearer picture will emerge on the current situation and possible initiatives required at European level,' he said.
  • Representatives from 48 of the US's not-for-profit medical and scientific societies and publishers announced their commitment to providing qualified free access to, and dissemination of, published research findings in a document entitled The Washington DC Principles for Free Access to Science. The signatories of the DC Principles, as they are known, claim they will provide 'the needed 'middle ground' in the debate'. The principles recommend a number of practices, including the support of several forms of free access and of 'the reinvestment of revenue from journals in direct support of science worldwide.' However the organisations also say, 'publication fees should not be borne solely by researchers and their funding institutions.' www.dcprinciples.org
  • The UK's Joint Information Systems Committee (JISC) announced a �150,000 programme to allow four publishers to move towards - or continue - open access delivery for some of their journals. Together with the Open Society Institute, JISC also ran an author survey, which revealed that 92 per cent of authors support the principle of open access for all readers. www.jisc.ac.uk

January 2004

  • At a meeting of the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), research ministers representing 34 countries, both inside and outside the European Union, agreed a 'declaration on access to research data from public funding aimed at enhancing the quality of science systems worldwide'. The signatories concluded that open and transparent methods for accessing research data should be created. www.oecd.org/document/15/0,2340,en_2649_34487_25998799_1_1_1_1,00.html

October 2003

  • The Wellcome Trust published 'An economic analysis of scientific research publishing' and a statement in support of open access. See box: 'The Wellcome Trust's position'.
  • Representatives of research organisations in France, Germany, Hungary, Italy and Norway signed the Berlin declaration on open access to knowledge in sciences and humanities, and said they will encourage their researchers and grant recipients to publish 'according to the principles of the open access paradigm'. www.mpg.de/pdf/openaccess/BerlinDeclaration_en.pdf

December 2002

  • The Public Library of Science (PLoS) announced its reincarnation as an open access scientific publishing venture, funded by a five year, $9 million grant from the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation. www.plos.org

February 2002

  • The Open Society Institute (OSI) proclaimed its support of the open publishing model for dissemination of research, and launched the Budapest Open Access Initiative (BOAI) with a $3m donation to promote 'world-wide electronic distribution of peer-reviewed journal literature and completely free and unrestricted access to it by all scientists, scholars, teachers, students, and other curious minds.' www.soros.org/openaccess

The Wellcome Trust's position
In October 2003 The Wellcome Trust published a detailed report, commissioned from consultancy firm SQW Ltd, spelling out the intricacies of the scientific publishing market. The report, says a release from the Wellcome Trust, 'reveals an extremely complex market for scientific publishing, influenced by a host of different players each with different priorities.'

The Trust used the conclusions of that report as the basis for a position statement in favour of the open-access model, outlining its support for 'open and unrestricted access to the published output of research, including the open access model ... as a fundamental part of its charitable mission and a public benefit to be encouraged wherever possible.'

The Trust specified, among other things, that it 'will encourage and support the formation of such [open access] journals and/or free-access repositories for research papers' and that it 'will meet the cost of publication charges, including those for online-only journals for Trust-funded research, by permitting Trust researchers to use contingency funds for this purpose'. It will also encourage researchers to retain their copyright.

The statement surprised many in its emphatic support of open access, and has pointed the way for other funding organisations that might wish to exert their influence on how things evolve. Jan Velterop of BioMedCentral agrees that funding bodies are key to the process of change: 'The funding agencies and review bodies are not bystanders - they are active participants in determining the way the scientific publication process works,' he said. But while Velterop predictably supported the Wellcome Trust's conclusions, others demurred, and not just because of their position in the market.

Sally Morris of the ALPSP picked up on what she saw as unexpected inaccuracies in the report. In an edition of the ALPSP members' newsletter, she wrote: 'The background to the Wellcome statement is a - surprisingly unsatisfactory - report from SQW Ltd... Some of its conclusions are unarguable ... [but] ... there seems ... to be a peculiar non-sequitur which [asserts] that the dominance of large commercial publishers is in itself a bad thing, and that open access journals are the best way to challenge it. There are also some very strange confusions - for example, between preservation archives and 'open archives', ... and between page charges and open access publication charges.... There are fundamental misperceptions (that 'big deals' limit, rather than increase, access; and that copyright retention by authors is essential to open access)...' The report, An economic analysis of scientific research publishing, is at: www.wellcome.ac.uk/en/1/awtpubrepeas and the position statement is at: www.wellcome.ac.uk/en/1/awtvispolpub

Further information

Public Library of Science: www.plos.org
ALPSP: www.alpsp.org
BioMed Central: www.biomedcentral.com
Royal Society: www.royalsociety.org
Institute of Physics: www.iop.org
The Wellcome Trust: www.wellcome.ac.uk