Open access is much wider than just readers not paying

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Martin Richardson is managing director of Oxford Journals, a division of Oxford University Press, which last year announced its Oxford Open option, where authors can choose to pay to make their articles open access.

How do you define open access?

MR: Our definition is freely-accessible online at point of publication without any charges to readers.


We are conducting a number of different experiments into open access and who will pay if the readers don't.

For example, we have an open-access journal of complementary medicine where the vast majority of contributors are from the Far East. Rather than an author-pays model it has a sponsorship model and in that circumstance it works well. We are also experimenting with making material that is paid-for available for limited times.

We do not have a preconceived idea about which model is best. Our first finding from the studies is that there is not likely to be one single model. Open access for me is much wider than just readers not paying.

What has been the response to Oxford Open?

MR: With the author-pays model there has been a huge difference in uptake depending on the discipline. Where there is a bigger budget such as in molecular biology there has been a higher uptake than in less highly-funded disciplines such as mathematics. However, even in the life sciences uptake of the author-pays option is still only 10-20 per cent.

The geographic market of the journal is another important factor in the response. For example, researchers in developing countries cannot afford to pay to publish or for subscriptions. We give free access online to researchers in the poorest developing countries.

I don't see any effect to the peer-review process. We do the peer review and accept papers before we discuss with authors how the paper will be funded.

What research are you doing and why?

MR: We have commissioned a number of research projects. The Library and Information Statistics Unit (LISU) at Loughborough University, UK is looking at what happens to usage statistics for articles when they are open access and whether this leads to more citations. For the situations where there is an increase in usage with open access, the CIBER group at University College London is looking at where this increase is coming from. Preliminary results show that there is a huge variation, even between different journals in the same discipline. When journals go to open access, the access sometimes goes up, sometimes it stays the same and sometimes it actually goes down. And it is very hard to compare newly launched open-access journals with subscription journals.

There are more factors to consider than just the access model. There has also been a big increase in usage of subscription journals anyway because of big deals and readers moving from print to online. How readers find information is also changing. It is now much more the case of them just going to search engines and finding articles that they would not have found before.

I think that hard evidence is what has been lacking in the debate up until now. Some previous studies have been like comparing apples and pears. We are trying to do experiments in a more rigorous scientific way with good controls. We will publish our results at a workshop in London on 5 June. We will also publish our methodology and try to suggest a standard approach to studying this.

What do you predict for the future?

MR: The challenge is whether an alternative for funding can be found. Most models don't really involve the author or reader paying. It is the librarian or funding body. My gut feeling is that, apart from a few rapidly-growing subject areas with lots of money, it won't grow fast unless funders pay for it. Until authors really know what they get in terms of benefit they won't be willing to spend their grants on it. However, if it was found that there was a significant benefit with open access then that would affect those people with no grants.

There are alternative models to getting open access. They are essentially still the readers paying but changing the way that it happens. The models include free access after a certain period, making access free to the developing world, paying per download and consortia deals. These ways are not traditionally thought of as open access but they do promote access.

Our view is that there is not a right or wrong way. If researchers tell us that they don't want a journal to be open access then we won't do it. We try to take decisions from the researchers' viewpoints.

Publishers are starting to do open access, partly in response to the researchers and partly as an experiment. The economic model has not been proven yet and open-access publishers might need other ways to cover their costs. However, if open-access took off then commercial publishers would do it and probably be very successful.