Open access publishing takes off
Tony Delamothe and Richard Smith
British Medical Journal - 2004; 328:1-3 (3 January)
The dream is now achievable
You cannot fight against the future. Time is on our side. The
great social forces which move onwards in their might and maj-
esty, and which the tumult of our debates does not for a moment
impede or disturb - those great social forces are against you;
they are marshalled on our side; and the banner which we now
carry in this fight, though perhaps at some moment it may droop
over our sinking heads, yet it soon again will float in the eye
of heaven, and it will be borne... perhaps not to an easy, but
to a certain and to a not distant victory.
W E Gladstone, 1866.
For supporters of open access publishing, these are heady times.
Over the past year the campaign to make the full text of origi-
nal research articles freely available via the world wide web
has made rapid progress (box).
Its most tangible sign was the publication of PLoS Biology,
which is favourably reviewed elsewhere in the journal (p 56).1
It's the first foray into publishing by the pressure group the
Public Library of Science, which aims "to catalyze a revolution
in scientific publishing by providing a compelling demonstration
of the value and feasibility of open-access publication." If its
revolution succeeds "everyone who has access to a computer and
an Internet connection will be a keystroke away from our living
treasury of scientific and medical knowledge."2
While PLoS Biology regards Cell, Nature, and Science as its
natural competitors, PLoS Medicine, scheduled for publication
this autumn, will be going head to head with general medical
The Public Library of Science charges authors $1500 (£851; 1207)
per accepted article to cover the costs of processing the arti-
cles (peer review and technical editing) and electronic distri-
bution. The article is then made freely available from its own
website as well as PubMed Central, the National Library of Medi-
cine's free digital archive of journal literature in the life
This model was pioneered among medical publishers by the Journal
of Clinical Investigation and BioMed Central, which publishes
more than 107 online journals. While it is commonly labelled
"author pays" to differentiate it from the traditional "reader
pays" model of journal subscription, it's mostly the authors'
funders who pick up the bill.3 In fact "readers" are also mostly
academic institutions. So the same institutions may pay with
open access but the beauty for them will be that they should pay
less as well as achieve universal access. The "losers" will be
publishers, particularly commercial publishers such as Reed El-
The main driver for this switch has been unsustainable develop-
ments in the publishing industry. Over recent years, journal
prices have increased far faster than the underlying rate of in-
flation (figure). As their budgets have failed to keep up, cash
strapped librarians have cut back on subscriptions. To compen-
sate for lost profits, publishers have increased their prices
even further-a death spiral that few traditional publishers seem
ready to escape.
The result has been that medical research, mainly funded by gov-
ernments, universities, and charitable foundations, has been
available only at higher and higher costs to potential users.
"Taxpayers have already paid for this research-why should they
pay for it again?" was the refrain taken up by America's newspa-
pers last summer.
This double payment makes scientific publishing a highly lucra-
tive business, worth $7bn a year. The market leader, Reed El-
sevier, makes annual profits of $290m with margins of nearly 40%
on its core journal business.4 5 On the back of a detailed eco-
nomic analysis,6 the United Kingdom's leading biomedical re-
search charity, the Wellcome Trust, concluded that "the publish-
ing of scientific research does not operate in the interests of
scientists and the public, but is instead dominated by a commer-
cial market intent on improving its market position."
Those who contribute most of the value to the process have begun
to mutiny. Last October two scientists at University of Califor-
nia San Francisco called for a boycott of six molecular biology
journals, accusing the publisher, Reed Elsevier, of charging ex-
orbitant fees for access. The academic senate at University of
California Santa Cruz has called on tenured members to give "se-
rious and careful consideration to cutting their ties with El-
sevier," unless Elsevier drops its prices. This would include no
longer submitting papers to Elsevier journals, refusing to refe-
ree the submissions of others, and giving up editorial posts.
What has emboldened these rebels is their knowledge that the
internet offers a route out of this impasse. In the paper world,
each extra copy of an article or a journal comes at cost-for pa-
per, print, binding, and postage. By comparison, on the web the
distribution costs are virtually zero (for bmj.com they amount
to about 0.3 pence/article). If the fixed costs of article proc-
essing could be recovered on input to the system then the output
could be made available free to everyone who was interested.
For this switch to occur, funding agencies would need to become
directly involved in funding the processing of research articles
as well as the research activity itself.6 Large funding bodies
that have done the sums estimate that picking up the costs of
open access publishing (at the Public Library of Science's rate
of $1500/article) would increase their research grants by only a
few per cent.
Light the blue touchpaper
December 2002 - The Public Library of Science receives a $9 mil-
lion grant from the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation for open
access publishing and announces its first two open access jour-
March 2003 - NHS announces membership deal with BioMed Central
June 2003 - Joint Information Systems Committee (a committee of
UK further and higher education funding bodies) buys institu-
tional memberships of BioMed Central for all 180 universities in
June 2003 - Release of Bethesda Statement on Open Access Pub-
lishing, with suggestions as to what institutions, funding agen-
cies, libraries, publishers, and scientists could do to bring it
June 2003 - Martin Sabo introduces the Public Access to Science
Act into Congress, which would exclude from copyright protection
works resulting from scientific research substantially funded by
the US government
September - 2003 Howard Hughes Medical Institute tells grantees
that the institute will cover article processing charges for
October 2003 - Publication of a position statement by the Well-
come Trust in support of open access publishing
October 2003 - Public Library of Science launches its first open
access journal, PLoS Biology
October 2003 - Release of Berlin Declaration on Open Access to
Knowledge in the Sciences and Humanities
October 2003 - Financial analysts at BNP Paribas and Citigroup
Smith Barney independently conclude that the business model of
open access publishing is viable and is likely to put pressure
on commercial publishers
December 2003 - JISC announces £150 000 funding programme to
help publishers make journals freely available on the internet
using open access models
December 2003 - Science and Technology Committee of the House of
Commons announces an inquiry into access to journals within the
scientific community, with particular reference to price and
December 2003 - World Summit on the Information Society (co-
sponsored by the UN and the International Telecommunications Un-
ion) endorses open access in its declaration of principles and
plan of action
From subscription rates and circulation numbers it has been cal-
culated that the scientific community currently pays about
$4500/article.7 So for one third of this cost, research articles
could be made available to all, instead of to a dwindling band
Several large funding agencies have already realised this: the
US National Institutes of Health, the Howard Hughes Medical In-
stitute, and the Wellcome Trust have all agreed to cover the
costs of open access publishing.8 BioMed Central has struck
deals with 360 institutions in 35 countries in exchange for an
institutional membership fee; article processing charges are
waived for researchers from member institutions. Last year
agreements were announced with the NHS and 180 British universi-
ties-thereby covering most biomedical research being done in the
Other funding agencies are considering their position, and sev-
eral national and international initiatives that could help them
work in a coordinated way are under discussion. One suggestion
has been to agree a date after which funders will expect that
all research conducted with their money will need to be pub-
lished as open access.
Meanwhile, other journals have begun open access experiments.
This month one of Oxford University Press's flagship journals,
Nucleic Acids Research, has adopted an author funded publishing
model for its annual database issue, making these articles
freely available online from the moment they are published. The
plan is to extend the experiment to the rest of the journal.
Also this month, two journals published by the Cambridge based
Company of Biologists-Development and the Journal of Cell Sci-
ence-publish their first articles paid for by author charges.
What is the BMJ doing? We have been an open access journal since
1998, making the full text of our original research articles
(along with everything else) freely available on the BMJ's web-
site (bmj.com). We've paid for this not by authors' charges but
with profits made from advertising. Whether original research
articles remain free after we introduce access controls on
bmj.com next January is still under discussion. But in the mean-
time, we intend exploring the feasibility of an author pays
model for the journal, in several stages:
* Gauging perceptions and understanding within the research com-
munity of the author pays model.
* Exploring authors' reactions to several different such models.
* Determining whether authors would be willing to pay to publish
and which model they favour.
* Experiment with several different models.
Our belief is that a long term sustainable model could be a mix-
ture of "author pays" for original research articles and "reader
pays" for the rest. The business logic is that the authors add
most of the value with original research articles (by undertak-
ing and writing up the research), whereas the editors and pub-
lishers add most of the value with the material they write or
commission. A business model where journals are paid for the
value they add is sustainable-and also provides an incentive for
them to add more value. In contrast, a model where publishers
charge for value added by others (the researchers) will be found
out-as Reed Elsevier is beginning to discover. Indeed, it could
even be argued that some publishers subtract rather than add
value-because the minimal value they add is more than undone by
their Balkanising medical research, making systematic reviews,
for example, difficult and expensive.
All change is resisted. Three things seem necessary for resis-
tance to be overcome and change to happen: a "burning platform,"
a vision of something better, and "next steps." The burning
platform has been present for a long time among librarians but
now has spread to academics, particularly in the United States.
The vision of something better arrived with the internet. The
"next step" is now provided by the idea of authors paying. The
result, we predict, will be the rapid achievement of the dream
of open access to scientific research.
Tony Delamothe, web editor
Richard Smith, editor
Links and references for the box can be found at:
We are grateful for the assistance of Peter Suber and Jan Vel-
terop in compiling the contents of the box.
TD is a member of the national advisory committee of PubMed Cen-
tral and a signatory of the Bethesda Statement on Open Access
Publishing. TD and RS are employed by the BMJ Publishing Group,
which depends on the traditional subscription model for a sub-
stantial proportion of its revenue.
Dr Rana Jawad Asghar
Program Manager Child Survival, Mozambique
Provincial Coordinator Sofala Province, Mozambique
Health Alliance International, Seattle, WA, USA
Coordinator South Asian Public Health Forum