June 13, 2012

Science For Everyone?

Michael Crumbliss for redOrbit.com

The world of scientific publishing has long been dominated by for-profit publishers who can limit the spread of ideas. A scientist´s career and future are made (or lost) by the quality and volume of articles describing new discoveries that they publish in top journals like Nature, Science and Cell.

A new movement in scientific publishing has emerged; open-source publishing that allows access by anyone in the world with no payment.

PeerJ, unveiled on Tuesday, is a new entrant into the field. It is a new low-cost scientific journal with an unusual business model that will add to the pressure on for-profit publishers like Reed Elsevier and Axel Springer and stoke the debate over free access to research. They plan to pay for operations by charging a one-time payment ranging from $99 to $259 for lifetime membership per researcher, rather than payment per paper or subscription by readers.

So the researcher pays once, but access is free and unrestricted upon publication.

Information from for-profit publishers in top journals sits behind a pay wall. But their content is provided largely for free by scientists and peer-reviewed by unpaid academics, with the journals then sold to those same academics via their university libraries for thousands of dollars per year.

This business is highly profitable. For example, Elsevier publishes more than 2,000 journals with a staff of some 7,000. It made a profit last year of 768 million pounds on revenues of 2.1 billion, giving a margin of about 37 percent, which is healthy by the standards of any industry.

Other publishers are less forthcoming about their margins. Nature Publishing Group is owned by privately held Macmillan and therefore does not have to disclose its earnings, and Springer corporate strategy executive Wim van der Stelt told Reuters the company does not reveal its margins for academic journals.

Some have complained that this nominal charge proposed by PeerJ is not in the spirit of open-source publishing. PeerJ replies that quality does not come cheap, and they have to pay teams of editors and the cost of maintaining servers that store vast amounts of published research.

For-profit publishers agree on this point.

"What we do as publishers is huge and it is complex," said Alicia Wise, who is responsible for Elsevier's policy on access to its journals, at a briefing with reporters.

Large non-profit research trusts agree with the open-source model. The Wellcome Trust, which funds scientific research with about 600 million pounds a year, supports open access for all research done with its money and, with the Howard Hughes Medical Institute and the Max Planck Society, is launching a journal this year, called eLife, based on the open model.

Yet only 55 percent of scientists with trust funding currently comply with its requirement to publish in open access media, said Wellcome spokesman Mark Henderson.

This is not a surprise given the natural desire of researchers to get published in top journals. But the trust has plans for sanctions to encourage holders of their grants to comply, including the possible withholding of future funding.

"We are not against publishers making a profit," said Henderson, but he added that research funded by the trust cannot have its greatest impact unless freely available to the public.

Old habits and traditions die slowly, however. The prestige and a high "impact factor" -- a measure owned by Thomson Reuters that calculates the frequency with which journal articles are cited elsewhere -- will continue to drive researchers to the top journals.

Some say it is an issue of quality over quantity. Although research published in open access journals is peer-reviewed, it is judged only on accuracy rather than its significance in pushing forward the boundaries of knowledge, they say. About 950,000 papers are submitted yearly to Elsevier and only 300,000 are published. In an open-source model there is no filter for relevance.

The journal model will be around for a while and serves a purpose, but new changes in open-source scientific publishing point to a better sharing of knowledge. And that is good for everyone.