Many areas of research are funded by taxpayers but they do not see the results

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Matthew Cockerill is publisher of BioMed Central, a publisher that is making a business out of the open-access publishing model.

What has driven open access?

MC: The open-access movement is driven partly by the frustrations at the barriers in the toll-access model. Researchers might not be able to see articles if they are trying to access them from outside their institution or if they are looking at journals that are outside their usual field. It is strange that researchers have done the research and also done the peer reviewing but access to that research is conditional on having a subscription. Barriers to access are not in the interest of scientific research so we need to break down those barriers.

The life sciences have really led open access. In the fields of genomics and systems biology in particular, research results are seen as data to help get a full understanding of organisms and we need to be able to structure this information.

Many areas of research are funded by taxpayers but they do not see the results. They can only get reports from journalists, which can be very sensational. The majority of traffic to our site comes from Google. It is mainly scientists but there are also members of the public.

What has been the reaction to your journals?

MC: It takes around three years for journals to get impact factors once ISI has started tracking them. For that reason not many of our journals have impact factors so far but those that ISI has tracked have done very well and many of our journals have very high unofficial impact factors. We have proved that online-only and open-access can compete with traditional print and subscription journals.

Our publishing operations have experienced exponential growth, with the number of articles doubling every 18 months. Our authors have also been very pleased with our download statistics.

One challenge is that it is very difficult to measure the effect of open access on citations. There is no control – each article is either open access or it is not so you cannot see what would have happened if that particular article had been published using the other model.

How are your journals funded?

MC: Because we don't have barriers to access it needs to be funded in other ways. Sometimes journals cover the costs themselves – and we have at least three that do this – but typically they are funded by authors, institutions or funding bodies. If funding bodies take the view that the end-result of research is the published article then it makes sense to fund the publication as well as the other 95 per cent of the research.

Of our 150 journals, the majority – around 140 – are new launches. Some have moved from other publishers where they were previously published on a subscription model and some were former subscription journals that we started with when we launched in 2000.

BioMed Central has had to figure out how to work with research community and funders to move towards open access. A large part of it has been convincing funders so that they are aware of potential funding problems as authors and institutions move from the subscription model to the author-pays model.

We have also made a membership programme for open access that institutions can join and have made a list of funders that support the author-pays model as part of their grants.

For our first two years we had no article processing charges, then we introduced a small fee. In the last year we started to charge what we see as a realistic article-processing charge – £750 per article. On the basis of this we believe we will break even in the next few years. It is necessary for anyone who is going to innovate in publishing to recognise that is takes time. It is now starting to pay off.

What are your future plans?

MC: We are moving away from simply biomedical titles. We already publish several chemistry journals and have had interest from the physics and social science communities. We see potential for a much wider remit and a new brand will probably emerge for us. Open access is quite small but growing. We have already published over 15,000 articles so we are not a tiny publisher. Many other publishers are also expanding their open-access activities and potential authors now know much more about open access. We see this as a model whose time has come.