Friday, August 26, 2011

The Open Access Interviews: Wellcome Trust’s Robert Kiley

Over the past year Open Access (OA) publishing has gained considerable mindshare, not just amongst researchers and librarians, but publishers too. This has been helped greatly by the perceived success of the Public Library of Science (PLoS) — which in 2010 managed to cover its operating costs with revenue for the first time. But as it becomes increasingly likely that OA publishing will prove no less expensive than traditional subscription publishing, a couple of key questions arise: How much will Gold OA eventually cost? And how will the research community pay for it? I explored these questions recently with Robert Kiley, Head of Digital Services at the UK-based Wellcome Trust, one of the world's largest medical research charities.

The consensus is that viability for PLoS was eventually achieved thanks to PLoS ONE and the “light” peer review model that it has pioneered. Indeed PLoS ONE is widely described as a “cash cow”, since it is believed to be subsidising not just the publisher’s flagship journals but practically the entire PLoS enterprise. For this reason, no doubt, traditional publishers are currently rushing to create clones of what PLoS itself describes as the first of a new breed of megajournals.

Amongst those to announce PLoS ONE look-alikes in recent months are the American Institute of Physics (AIP Advances), Nature Publishing Group (Scientific Reports), the Company of Biologists (Biology Open) and Sage (Sage Open).

In addition, practically all subscription publishers now offer a Hybrid OA option. This allows researchers to have their papers made freely available on the Web even when they publish in a subscription journal — if they agree to pay an article processing charge (APC). Designed by publishers as a way to offer OA without loss of revenue, Hybrid OA is invariable charged at premium rates — which range from between $3,000 to $5,000 per paper.

In short, despite their initial rejection (not to say repugnance) of OA, publishers now view it as a lucrative new revenue stream to have opened up in the scholarly publishing space. Indeed, they appear to fear that unless they move quickly they may lose out in what some have characterised as a “gold rush”.

This new attitude was articulated on the Liblicense mailing list recently by publishing consultant Joe Esposito, who assured list members “OA can grow and commercial publishers can become even more profitable, in part by co-opting OA publishing.”


In the meantime, however, many in the research community have resigned themselves to the fact that OA publishing may never provide the cost savings that it was expected to deliver. As former director of Penn State University Press Sandy Thatcher put it recently on Liblicense, “[W]ith the gold OA model, you are entirely at the mercy of publishers, who will charge what they need to make their preferred profit margin and will not be any more transparent than they are now about their actual costs. End users will benefit, but will the costs to the system be any less?”

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

The Open Access Interviews: WebmedCentral’s Kamal Mahawar

In any discussion about scholarly communication today two thorny issues quickly emerge: the so-called access problem, and the problem of declining peer review standards. Kamal Mahawar, co-founder and CEO of a new web platform for publishing biomedical research called WebmedCentral, believes he has a solution to both problems. WebmedCentral, however, is not without its critics.

The access problem afflicting the research community is essentially an issue of affordability. Researchers submit a paper to a publisher, who then invites other researchers to assess it for quality and value. Assuming it is deemed to be adequate the paper is then published in a journal. To fund this process publishers sell subscriptions to their journals. Research institutions buy these subscriptions to ensure that their researchers have access to all relevant research being done around the world.

As library budgets have declined, however, research institutions have struggled to find the necessary money to pay for all the subscriptions their faculty require, depriving researchers of access to more and more research — a phenomenon known as the serials crisis.

Advocates of open-access publishing (as distinct from self-archiving) believe that the answer to this access/affordability problem is for researchers to abandon publishing in subscription journals and publish in OA journals instead. Rather than imposing charges for access (subscriptions), OA journals levy a publication fee, or “article-processing charge” on authors, or more usually their institutions. This enables publishers to make the papers they publish freely available on the Web, and so provide unfettered access to them.

The problem with OA publishing, however, is that the publication fees are far from cheap — around $1,350 to $3,000 per paper. Consequently, not all researchers have access to the necessary funds. While some OA publishers offer waivers for those without the wherewithal, this is generally done on a case-by-case basis, and the practice could very well be discontinued at some point in the future. If it was, indigent authors could find themselves unable to get their research published, particularly authors based in the developing world.

Raghavendra Gadagkar, a researcher at the Centre for Ecological Sciences at the Indian Institute of Science in Bangalore, made this point eloquently in a letter to Nature in 2008. He concluded that author-pays OA, “does more harm than good in the developing world”.