Tuesday, November 30, 2004

Open Access, Open Sesame

The whole point of publishing a blog is for others to see it. For that they need open access to it. You would think that would be the whole point about science, too: Open Access. Unfortunately that is not how scientific publishing has worked until recently. Even now the vast majority of scientific papers aren't accessible unless you have priviliges at a library that carries the journal or you have a subscription. That is beginning to change and this post is to alert readers to an extremely significant trend in scientific publishing.

In the interests of full disclosure, I am a co-Editor-in-Chief of an Open Access journal. I don't make a penny from it although the publisher does (more on the publisher's business model, below). I spend a lot of time and effort arranging for peer-review, counseling authors and doing all the other things good editors do because I believe strongly in the principle that good and reliable science should be available without charge to any one on this planet (and in this case, has an internet connection and a browser). This is especially true for the majority of work in this country supported by tax-payer's money through NIH.

In the medical field Open Access works like this. If you do a PubMed search on a particular subject (e.g., influenza A H5N1), the search engine returns a list of citations meeting the search criteria. If an article is in an Open Access journal there will be a button next to the cite to download the full text of the article in .pdf format. That's good for the searcher who gets the paper immediately without barriers of place, time or money, and good for the scientist who has a large stake in his or her work being noticed, cited and used by other scientists.

Many people don't realize that scientists don't get paid for their contributions to scientific journals and may actually have to pay "page charges" (often amounting to $50 - $100 per page). The publisher's subscription fee is solely for marketing and distribution. But with the internet we don't need publishers for distribution. We can distribute for free. Open Access journals do just that as on-line publications.

So how do the publishers make money? Open Access publishers have switched the business model from having the reader pay to having the author pay. Good for readers. What about for authors? Does it prevent some from publishing? That depends on how much it is and if there are easy ways to pay for it. Some, like the recently launched Public Library of Science (PLoS) charge a hefty $1500/paper. Others, like the 100+ journals published by the leading Open Access publisher BioMed Central charge in the neighborhood of $600/paper (varying with journal; a few are in the $1000 or more range). In the BioMedCentral case, however, there is a novel twist: they allow institutions to beome "members." There are currently more than 450 subscribing institutions in 38 countries (complete list here), including most of the major research universities in the US (143 total). If you are a faculty at one of the subscribing institutions there is no charge to publish at all and there are special provisions to allow Editors limited processing charge waivers for scientists in developing countries or students without other means. But even if your institution is not a member, most national research funders (including NIH) allow scientists to put a processing charge on their grants. So many universities now belong to this effort, however, that this is becoming increasingly unnecessary.

There are other advantages to Open Access besides immediate access. Publication is almost always faster while still maintaining rigorous peer review. Large supplementary datasets or appendices, colored photos or diagrams and long papers are all easily accomodated without any extra charge. The full text of each article is immediately and permanently archived in the National Library of Medicine's full-text archive, PubMed Central, as well as repositories in Germany, France and The Netherlands. Thus even if a journal ceases publishing, its papers are archived for however long these national repositories last (forever is a long time).

What about intellectual property rights? Here is the BMC model (link for attribution). Although other journals might differ, this is probably typical (although admittedly I have not investigated this). The author retains copyright but:

Anyone is free:

  • to copy, distribute, and display the work;
  • to make derivative works;
  • to make commercial use of the work;

Under the following conditions: Attribution

  • the original author must be given credit;
  • for any reuse or distribution, it must be made clear to others what the license terms of this work are;
  • any of these conditions can be waived if the authors gives permission.

Statutory fair use and other rights are in no way affected by the above.

PLoS and BioMedCentral are not the only Open Access publishers. Many other journals have gone Open Access on their own, including all the journals from Oxford University Press; the British Medical Journal (kudos); and Environmental Health Perspectives, the major journal in the environmental health field (I note that this happened after an Open Access rival, Environmental Health, started publishing. It is hard to know whether that influenced EHP's decision, but it was certainly welcomed and past due).

Open Access is a significant development in scientific publishing. Here is the current link page from BioMedCentral (link for attribution) for other tools for free access to medical literature:


Dedicated to the promotion of free access to medical journals over the Internet, the site carries listings of free full-text journals.

Health InterNetwork

The Health InterNetwork was launched by the Secretary General of the United Nations and is led by the World Health Organization to bridge the "digital divide" in health. It aims to ensure that health information and the technologies to deliver it are widely available and effectively used by health personnel professionals, researchers, scientists, and policy makers.

Public Library of Science

A non-profit organization of scientists committed to making the world's scientific and medical literature freely accessible to scientists and to the public around the world.

PubMed Central

A digital archive of life sciences journal literature with free and unrestricted access.


The Scientific Electronic Library Online - SciELO is an electronic library covering a selected collection of Brazilian scientific journals.


SPARC is an alliance of universities, research libraries, and organizations built as a constructive response to market dysfunctions in the scholary communication system. These dysfunctions have reduced dissemination of scholarship and crippled libraries. SPARC serves as a catalyst for action, helping to create systems that expand information dissemination and use in a networked digital environment while responding to the needs of scholars and academe.
Update: A helpful reader, Peter Suber, whose blog is devoted to the Open Access Movement, has provided a number of extremely useful links for those interested in this important development. Of particular interest is the third link on the NIH open access plan which would require depositing a paper funded by NIH in the PubMed Central free access repository within 6 months of publication. This reasonable (too reasonable? why 6 months? I paid for it with my tax money, I should see it immediately) is being vigorously opposed by some scholarly societies whose income relies on their journal subscriptions and several major medical journals who make a great deal of money selling reprints of clinical trials to drug companies who send them free to doctors. Anyway, here are the links from Peter (above opinions are my own):
Open Access Overview
(my introduction to OA for those who are new to the concept)

SPARC Open Access Newsletter
(my newsletter, published monthly)

FAQ on the NIH open-access plan

Timeline of the open access movement

What you can do to help the cause of open access