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The Crisis in Scholarly Publishing: Open Access to the Rescue?

Oren, Gale A MILS, AHIP

Journal of Neuro-Ophthalmology: March 2008 - Volume 28 - Issue 1 - pp 1-4
doi: 10.1097/WNO.0b013e3181678618

Kellogg Eye Center, University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, Michigan.

Address correspondence to Gale A. Oren, MILS, AHIP, Kellogg Eye Center, 100 Wall St., Ann Arbor, MI 48105; E-mail:

The world of scientific publishing is in crisis. Traditionally, research has been funded by the National Institutes of Health (NIH) and other funding sources. Research is conducted and reported by investigators, who submit their intellectual property to publishers. Publishers produce and disseminate the work. Libraries, institutions, and individuals pay for access to this scientific information.

This cycle was thrown off in the past two decades as journal prices began to increase astronomically. The cost of serial expenditures in research libraries increased 227% from 1986 to 2002, according to the Association of Research Libraries (1). During the same period, the number of purchased serials increased by only 9%, whereas the consumer price index rose 64% (1). These annual price increases continue while library budgets are remaining stable or being cut. As a result, libraries have been forced to cancel journal subscriptions, reducing the variety of content they are able to provide. As the system has spun out of balance, new models of publishing have taken hold. Authors need to be aware of this crisis, understand their options, and learn to better manage their intellectual property.

In this issue of the Journal, Mower and Youngkin (2) point out ways in which authors had better look out for their interests. In defense of publishers, McMullan (3) discusses the potential conflict between open access to the published scientific literature and issues of copyright, peer review, economics, and government intervention. Here is some background on these issues.

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The major players in the scholarly publishing marketplace, such as the publishers, libraries, authors, and funding agencies, are motivated by very different factors.

The publishing world has been buffeted by major restructuring. Mergers and acquisitions have resulted in several “mega-publishers,” including Reed Elsevier (ScienceDirect), Springer (SpringerLink), Taylor & Francis (Informa), Blackwell Publishing (Synergy), and Wolters Kluwer (Ovid). It has been shown that as competition decreases, prices increase (4).

Commercial publishers are driven by profit and stockholder interests. The publishers add immense value and expertise as they manage peer review, marketing and distribution, and online access, in addition to the editing and publishing process.

But publishing economics supersede concerns over dissemination and access. Librarians are concerned chiefly with access. They want the greatest amount of relevant content to be available to their users, but rising costs have become a great obstacle. They are also facing the “big deal,” in which electronic content is licensed rather than purchased. Many publishers aggregate or “bundle” electronic content, offering predetermined packages of titles, further reducing the control librarians have over their collections. Bundling squeezes out funding to purchase subscriptions to journals published by smaller or newer publishers. As prices rise, declining subscription rates have resulted in even higher prices. Libraries end up with less content for more money.

Authors have their own motivations. They would like their hard work to be recognized and made easily accessible to their peers. They also need easy access to their peers’ published work. In the traditional publishing model, authors typically sign over rights to their own work in exchange for publication and then depend on publishers to disseminate their work. But the work of researchers builds upon previous research, with the sharing of cumulative knowledge being one of the foundations of the scientific enterprise. Rising subscription costs and reduced access have created barriers to the flow of scientific information.

University administrators are also stakeholders in this crisis. In an open letter to the higher education community, 25 university provosts encouraged support of legislation for “broadening access to publicly funded research in order to accelerate the advancement of knowledge and maximize the related public good” (5).

Consumers, who pay taxes to support government funding of research, want access to the results of that research when medical needs arise. In response to consumer demand, government sees the need for more widespread dissemination of the research it funds, hence its own efforts in that direction.

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This seemingly out-of-control system has laid the groundwork for the “open access” movement, which incorporates a variety of models under one umbrella.

Open access entails a new model of publishing wherein the author, supported by an institution or funding agency, pays the publishing costs and owns the copyright. The publisher manages the peer review process and publishes directly to the Internet, where content is accessible free of charge to the public. Some of the best known open access publishers are Public Library of Science (PLoS) and BioMed Central (BMC). Open access publishers take full advantage of available computing technology to streamline the publishing process.

A variant of open access, more accurately known as “public access,” is a National Institutes of Health (NIH)-driven initiative in which articles are submitted to a publicly accessible repository of published articles. The traditional model of publishing is retained in that the publisher still owns the copyright. Published articles are submitted to the repository after a 6- to12-month embargo. Participants include PubMed Central (PMC), the NIH-sponsored repository, and HighWire Press (developed in 1995 by Stanford University). Still under development, the United Kingdom's PubMed Central (UKPMC) has recently joined in. In 2004, the NIH stopped short of requiring that NIH-funded articles be submitted to the repository. However, in late 2007, President Bush signed into law the requirement for a mandatory public access policy.

Despite much pressure from researchers, the European Commission still hesitates to mandate that publicly funded research be accessible to all. However, the United Kingdom's Wellcome Trust, the largest non-governmental research funding entity, requires that articles based on its funding be placed in PMC within 6 months.

Many publishers have developed their own initiatives involving open access, public access, or their hybrids. In July 2006, Elsevier implemented a policy in which all NIH-funded articles are automatically deposited into PMC 12 months after publication unless the author requests otherwise. Springer has introduced an “open choice” program in which authors have the option of paying $3,000 per article for publication costs in return for retaining the copyright. Lippincott Williams & Wilkins has adopted a “delayed” public access policy for the quarterly Journal of Neuro-Ophthalmology, in which all issues are available free online 18 months after publication.

Self-archiving entails having authors submit preprint versions of their work to institutional archives and repositories or posting them on personal homepages. Most publishers allow this, but with distinctive rules and restrictions guiding the process. Institutions are encouraging faculty to self-archive, and it is anticipated that the numbers of authors doing so will increase.

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It has been claimed that open access articles have a citation advantage: the more accessible the article, the higher its likelihood of being read and cited (6,7). The 2006 impact factors for PLoS Biology and PLoS Medicine were 14.101 and 13.750, respectively, high enough for them to be regarded as top-tier journals. PLoS Biology had by far the highest impact factor among all biology journals ranked for 2006. PLoS Medicine ranked fifth among 103 general and internal medicine journals (8).

On the other hand, a 2004 study done by Thompson ISI, the publisher that calculates and publishes the journal impact factors, showed similar impact factors among open access and traditional journals (9,10). Whether or not opponents approve, it is clear that open access articles are being read and cited and are at least holding their own, if not exceeding citation rates of traditional articles.

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Apart from free access to readers, other advantages of the open access model are quicker turnover time to publication and higher exposure for authors. But opponents argue that the model is not financially viable in the long term and that it places an unfair financial burden on authors.

The rigor of the peer review process in open access is also questioned. The author-pays model may not only change the economics, but it also could also influence the traditional peer review process. In addition, in many cases self-archiving is allowed before peer review, which can be confusing. Some open access publishers actually welcome a change in the traditional peer review process. PLoS ONE streamlines peer review, leaving part of it up to readers after publication. However, the large majority of open access publishers appear to uphold the usual standards.

Supporters of public access argue that research supported by taxpayers and institutions should be made available to taxpayers and institutions. They also see value in having a centralized place to retrieve articles. Opponents of public access argue that it has a limited effect because it applies only to NIH-funded work. Publishers are concerned that their income will be eroded as libraries cancel subscriptions in the face of more freely available content.

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Associations and societies have been experimenting with various open access models. For example, the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America (PNAS) and The New England Journal of Medicine now offer free content online 6 months after publication. PNAS also offers an author-pays model for immediate open access.

Although scholarly societies certainly benefit from maximizing access to their research, most are dependent on subscription (and membership) income, which is tied to society journals. The Association of Learned and Professional Society Publishers (ALPSP) has cautioned that scholarly societies need to take into account the hidden costs of open access (11).

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The initial voluntary submission rate of articles to PMC had been disappointing, but this will all change soon because on December 26, 2007, The Consolidated Appropriations Act (HR 2764) was signed into law (12). It includes a provision that directs the NIH to adopt a mandate to provide the public with open access to all NIH-funded research. At the time of the writing of this article, there is still much to be determined as to the timeline and logistics of the mandate, but this act definitely gives the open access movement new momentum.

Publishers continue to fight back. Earlier in 2007, The American Association of Publishers hired a consultant to launch a public relations campaign against open access (13). Because many traditional publishers believe that the open access movement has serious financial implications for the industry, they are compelled to confront it. It remains to be seen what action, if any, will be taken to oppose implementation of the public access new mandate.

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Librarians believe that open access, in one form or another, is here to stay (14). Peter Suber, the editor of the online SPARC Open Access Newsletter, cites as proof the ever-increasing number of open access initiatives, journals, repositories, and policies, as well as publishers’ recognition of this reality and their experimentation with various open access and hybrid models (15). Before passage of the NIH legislation, he had predicted that it would pass and would gradually lead to other funding agency mandates. Suber also predicted that publishers will eventually embrace open access and discover ways to benefit from it (15).

It is clear that authors are the key. They are the creators of the scholarly literature as well as its consumers. They should be the final decision makers as to where and how they will publish. Authors reporting the results of NIH-funded research will need to comply with the forthcoming public access mandate. Regardless of the source of funding, they should look beyond getting their work published and take into consideration how accessible it will be to the scientific community after publication.

I believe that open access is becoming firmly entrenched in the scientific publishing marketplace. The motivating factor-the rising cost of journal subscriptions-continues in full force. Readers of the biomedical literature rightly expect to have extensive access to electronic journals in their areas of interest. Open access, in one form or other, is the best way to meet these expectations.

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© 2008 Lippincott Williams & Wilkins, Inc.