Science, discussed.

To Open Access, then Beyond

UK universities (as Cambridge) and funding bodies (Wellcome Trust) have recently released their APCs for the last years. Much has been written and discussed on the topic (a small selection: here here and here) and I am not going to repeat it here. In a nutshell, what emerged is a disproportioned (?) cost associated with publishers that offer ineffective/incomplete open access models.

Is this justified?

At least for what concerns life sciences (and the biochemistry and molecular biology area in this example), analysis of their Journal Citation Records shows individual journals broadly cluster in three main groups (Fig. 1) characterised by: I. high profile and few papers, II. many papers and lower Impact Factor, and III. a bulk of Journals with moderate impact and publications number.


Fig 1: IF vs papers published for Journals in the Biochemistry and Molecular Biology category as provided by the Journal Citation Reports. Raw data here.

Despite a strong belief in open access publication, I do (still) see a value in publishing in high impact journals*. However, most journals do not offer any extraordinarily high IF to justify the lack of green open access, but still receive lots of submissions. Journals in this pool generate most of the impressive profits large, lucrative publishers achieve (I’m sure you can guess their names) . I recently put together a plot to show the difference in APCs for Cambridge University if all papers would have been published in green open access Journals (Fig 2).


Fig 2: Total Gain/loss per publisher if all papers would have been published by a green open access journal instead (PLOS, BioMed, Frontiers). Authors’ subscriptions (e.g. ACS) have not been considered.

The result is (to me at least) quite revealing:  4 publishers only account for the best part of the £~110K difference, and their journals mostly fall in group III as defined above (raw data are available here). So, after a moment of despair, after calculating how many experiments could financed with this amount of money (or PhDs, PostDocs hired), after the very legitimate 10 minutes of indignation for the APC policies of the main publishing groups, then comes the question: what can be done?

Publish no more

Sure, one might want to see all these journals being shut as the result of a public uprising, or support the “Elsevier Boycott” model (Gowers’s 2013 update, and Guardian’s 2012 article). Recently, Tim Gowers managed to get APC costs, enrollment and academic staff data from 18 of the UK Universities in the Russell group. Tim’s report and analysis are very much worth a read (you can do so here), and this is the table you want to memorize (Fig 3).

Fig 3: Elsevier publication costs for Rullell group’s Universities. Originally from Gowers’s blog.

Doesn’t this look like a awful lot of money for a single, mostly group III publisher? Good, let’s close them down then (or boycott, the final outcome being the same).

Go Open

Hold on, among those journals there is a number I receive the TOC of (yes, some people still use RSS feeds) and I know I can trust the paper they publish to be accurate, experimentally correct (to the best of authors’ and reviewers’ knowledge) and relevant in their field. I can say the same about most open access journals as well, where experimental rigour is assessed, while ‘impact’ is measured at article-level only**. These journals provide a real editorial service, and what is left to me is to decide if I’m interested in the science or not.

I don’t wish for those journals to be closed.

Should they become (fully) open access, possibly online-only journals? It would definitely be my choice, but I don’t see it becoming reality any time soon. For the sake of the argument, let’s imagine profit-oriented publishers were to change their minds, publish “open” and reduce APCs.

In this scenario, what would be the additional benefits of submitting to journals as PLOS, BioMed Central, Frontiers or eLife? It sounds like a paradox, but it seems to me that the resilience of the likes of Elsevier, Wiley and co provides a strong support to open access initiatives, at least for the time being. Once all journals will implement a fairer (for scientists, universities, libraries, funding agencies and public) publication model, how will I decide which journal to send my paper to? Will the criteria be its perceived impact? Its audience?

Are there any new ideas in Scientific Publishing?

Personally, I value the rigour in the review process, the target audience and ‘principles’ of a journal. As of now (May 2014), the choice is easy, with open access journals having a head start on (almost all) competitors. In the ideal scenario described above, I would look for an accurate peer review process (independently on its format) and, more importantly, for novel approaches towards publishing. The ‘quality first, impact never’ model championed by PLOSone is definitely something new, but has the downside of producing thousands of papers scattered across all areas. Sure, I could rely on Pubmed and Google searches, but I do find attractive the possibility to target my papers to a specific scientific community (audience). If more focused journals were to follow on this path, they would have my vote (and my papers).

However, the key feature that really gets my attention is the integration of pre-, post- and editorial review. Besides the usefulness of disclosing the editorial review process, a journal that would successfully coordinate (coordinate, not combine) how the scientific community responds to a paper throughout the different stages of its publication process would be my favourite, by a large margin. Technology (DOI), specialised platforms as PubPeer, (bio)Rxiv, Publons and Pubmed Commons, and a countless discussion on Twitter and personal blogs are already there ***.

Some publishers started ‘connecting all the dots‘, and hopefully more will follow.

* I reserve to express my doubts on this topic in a future post
** The question of ‘impact’ and how it distorts the publication/funding/career scheme is too broad to be answered here
*** I’m not the only one that thinks so

hat-tips [unordered list]:
Peter Murray-Rust Michelle Brook Timothy Gowers 
Jon Tennant Zen Faulkes

About Pietro Gatti

Interested in discussing (good) Science Lover of coffee & good films. Ideas all & only my own.

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This entry was posted on 20/05/2014 by in policy and tagged , , , , .


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