Cites & Insights: Crawford at Large
ISSN 1534-0937
Libraries · Policy · Technology · Media

Selection from Cites & Insights 4, Number1: January 2004

Scholarly Article Access

The biggest news in scholarly access last fall may (or may not) be the tipping point—the point at which university libraries say “Enough!” to overpriced commercial journal packages. In other news…

PLoS Publicity and Feedback

I don’t know long it will take the Public Library of Science to publish as much refereed scholarly material as BioMed Central and others who’ve been doing it for years—but as a publicity engine, PLoS is unmatched. Is that a good thing? It may be too early to tell. Meanwhile, a few items from the process.

Jan Velterop of BioMed Central sent a “Dear Colleague” letter to BioMed Central update registrants on October 6. He noted the Guardian story on PLoS and Open Access, the problems that Open Access is trying to solve, and the reactions of conventional publishers to this “experiment.” (His quotes.) “At BioMed Central we have, since May 2000, been operating the same open access model PLoS are now using. Many of you have already published in BioMed Central journals, so you will know that we are a practical demonstration of how open access publishing can successfully meet the needs of the community by giving free access to quality research whilst maintaining an excellent service to authors and readers.” He goes on to note growing support for BioMed Central from various parties and “a growing acceptance of our Open Access journals in the research community—our submission figures topped 7000 manuscripts earlier this month. To us, this signifies that Open Access publishing, as operated by BioMed Central, is no longer an ‘experiment’ but viable and sustainable.”

An October 10 press release posted on SPARC Open Access Forum (SOAF), headed “Organizations laud innovative open-access publishing venture,” touts the first issue of PLoS Biology. The release includes laudatory quotes from James G. Neal (chair of SPARC) and Harold Varmus (chairman of the board of PLoS); it also goes on to note other open access publishers, including BioMed Central.

“Dear PLoS Advocates,” the November 3 open letter begins, “‘If readership is the measure,’ began an October 20 Washington Post story, ‘last week’s launch of a new scientific journal, PLoS Biology, was a huge success.’ We’re glad the press noticed. In the 72 hours after PLoS Biology’s formal debut on October 13, one paper…was downloaded over 60,000 times.” The letter cites some other figures, including 12,236 downloads of the complete 65mB (PDF) issue. It notes conferences that PLoS planned to attend, announced two more Pre-Issue Publications (popular articles posted before the issue appears), and thanked “PLoS Advocates” (the A is capitalized, so I guess it’s a formal group) who threw ten launch parties. Given the extremes to which PLoS publicity has gone, how could the press not notice? The release raises a couple of questions—for example, are there actually 60,000 people who have any reason to read a scholarly article in biology?

That same day, David Dickson posted an editorial at SciDev.Net (, “Communicating science in an electronic era.” He discusses the producer-pays model as a way of removing the barriers to access (particularly in developing nations) posed by expensive journals and notes PLoS as an example of this approach—not noting that PLoS is significantly more expensive for producers than, for example, BioMed Central journals. After noting the $1,500 charge, he immediately adds: “Critics argue that, while this may be a relatively small amount for a US researcher with a substantial grant from the National Institutes of Health, it could be a major disincentive for scientists in the developing world, for whom the sum could represent several months’ wages.” He does note that PLoS says it will waive the fee for those who can’t pay it.

The next paragraph offers a new criticism: Producer-pays publishing “reduces the opportunities to use income from scientific publishing to subsidise other professional activities.” Should societies be gouging libraries to subsidize activities? That question doesn’t appear here. And what of purely commercial journals? “It allows them to carry news and information about the scientific community that would not necessarily be covered in a producer-pays publishing model. The disappearance of such a service would be a major loss, particularly at a time when scientists are being encouraged to increase their active interaction with society.”

Dickson follows by noting BioMed Central as a hybrid model, charging users for extra services beyond basic access—or, alternatively, moving traditional journals to differential pricing “in which price is broadly related to ability to pay. This, unsurprisingly, is the model favoured by most commercial publishers (and many scientific societies). These are keen to retain revenue from those ‘users’ of research that are still in a position to pay, but are also aware that their current pricing strategies discriminate against those in the developing world who are unable to do so.”

Note what’s really going on here: Institutions in the developed world are presumed to be “in a position to pay,” but the publishers will (and to a great extent already do) provide free or nearly-free access to journals in developing nations. In other words, the “new model” is charging what the market will bear—which differs from the old model only in that publishers can simultaneously beggar academic libraries and appear beneficent.

The editorial closes by saying it would be naïve to believe the future will belong to one model or another—and that from the perspective of developing nations, that’s a good thing. From the perspective of humanities students who see no new books on the shelves because library acquisitions budgets are sucked dry by big deals and other market pricing of STM periodicals, it may not be such a good thing. (SciDev.Net posts free articles from Nature and Science, which is disclosed in the editorial.)

New Scientist published an interview with PLoS’ Harold Varmus in early November. It’s a good interview and includes Varmus’ comment on societies using overpriced journals to subsidize activities:

I don’t believe that traditional business plans that depend upon the sale—the inappropriate sale from my point of view—of subscriptions to these journals should be how these societies finance their activities. To best serve their members they are simply going to have to adapt to the opportunities for much more efficient and useful publications of science by the internet.

An odd story appeared in USA Today on November 19—odd at least in one respect. It notes PLoS Biology (although the title appears quite differently), the skeptical stance of traditional publishers, and comments from Varmus and Vivian Siegel, editor of PLoS Biology (and formerly editor at Cell—see the separate Elsevier perspective). But then there’s this:

Open access presents other problems, warns publishing executive Christopher Lynch of the New England Journal of Medicine. “Give the copyright authority away and the research might be used in any fashion and could be abused by commercial interests.”

I’m guessing that Lynch was aware his statement is, at best, misleading. PLoS requires use of the Creative Commons “Attribution” license, which does not “give copyright authority away.” For that matter, the dangers seem odd: “The research might be used in any fashion”? Such as to conduct other research? But the facts in published research are not copyrightable in any case. “Abused by commercial interests”? I use the Attribution-NonCommercial CC license because I don’t want someone else republishing this work commercially without permission (and a fee)—but right now, the biggest “abuse” of research papers is the abuse to libraries and other subscribers from outrageous fees. Should PLoS require a license that allows commercial publishers to use papers without fees (as long as there’s proper attribution)? I’m sure they had their reasons. Open access publishing does not imply abandoning copyright; USA Today should have provided a response to Lynch’s comment.

The PLoS story will go on. You can be sure of that, given the group’s penchant for publicity.

Other Open Access Notes

One way to gauge the success of a new idea is the amount of denunciation it receives from those most directly threatened by it. By that gauge, late 2003 was a banner period for open access publishing. Consider a few of the items that follow:

November 4: The Big STM Publishers

The International Association of Scientific, Technical, and Medical Publishers—Elsevier, Kluwer, Springer, and friends—issued a statement on open access. While these publishers “look forward to any new experiments in our field,” the association argues that “scientific research has never been more accessible than it is today” and includes these paragraphs:

Abandoning the diversity of proven publishing models in favour of a single, untested model could have disastrous consequences for the scientific research community. It could seriously jeopardize the flow of information today, as well as continuity of the archival record of scientific progress that is so important to our society tomorrow.

It is the competitive and well-functioning market, and not governments, that must choose which business models and which publishers are best equipped to stay apace of the ever-increasing demand for information exchange.

Peter Suber had a few quick comments at SOAN. “It’s wishful thinking to call the open-access model ‘untested.’ OA archiving has been phenomenally successful for over a decade, longer than the web itself has existed, and OA journals are nearly as old. It is being tested around the world right now in every discipline.” He also notes that the current model “has been proven to be dysfunctional” and “has made the STM publishers more resented by their customers, the academic libraries, than nearly any other vendors of any other product.” To Suber, it is the current model that could jeopardize the flow of information, and the contrast between governments and competitive markets is false. “The scholarly journal ‘market’ is already permeated by government involvement, since it is based in large part on tax deductions for universities and their libraries and government grants for research.”

I would add that market analysts essentially admit that the STM market is not a competitive market: Each journal is a mini-monopoly and that Elsevier (in particular) and other very large publishers have huge and growing power. In the U.S., at least, I know of no serious suggestion that the government should mandate open access publishing. (Actually, open access journals go back more than a decade. Among others, the Public-Access Computer Systems Review, a peer-reviewed journal in the library field, began in 1990, and New Horizons in Adult Education, also peer reviewed, began in 1987.)

November 11: Journal of Postgraduate Medicine 49:3 (2003): 263-67

John Willinsky of the University of British Columbia offers The nine flavours of open access scholarly publishing, a seven-page discussion of the current situation. It’s an interesting discussion, but the web version suffers from serious formatting problems (or, rather, the complete lack of any formatting, so that paragraphs are distinguished only by short ending lines) and some typographical errors. One other problem: Of the “nine types” of open access publishing, only four or maybe five are open access in any real sense.

He includes the following as open access flavors, which may make commercial publishers happy but undercuts the whole idea of open access:

Ø    “Delayed open access,” as practiced by the New England Journal of Medicine and others, where access becomes free after six months.

Ø    “Partial open access,” where some articles are available but most aren’t.

Ø    “Per-capita open access,” where online journals are free in sufficiently poor nations.

Ø    “Open access lite,” where abstracts are available for free but articles are not.

Ø    The fifth, “open access co-op,” refers to SPARC—but SPARC has primarily sponsored lower-cost journals (I refuse to use “low-cost” to describe some SPARC-related journals). His idea is that “leading libraries would join in underwriting the direct serial expenses of open access journals on a long term basis,” and cites a German process.

Using that schema, open access has won! Any publisher that doesn’t offer one of the four so-called “open access” methods in the first four bullets will certainly be happy to do so if it gets libraries and OA advocates off its back.

November 2003: “Open access? Open wallets!”

This editorial, by Richard T. O’Grady of the American Institute of Biological Sciences, asserts that a nonprofit society publisher can only reduce overall publishing costs by 25% when paper publishing is abandoned. O’Grady also says that US grant awards “typically include very little, if any, money for publication costs” and that OA publishing would lock out scientists who are not externally funded or are funded through sources that will not pay publication charges.

Libraries and those who oversee their funding need to realize that, as they agitate for author-pay open access, their current budgetary and subscription decisions may well threaten the ability of many nonprofit scientific societies to continue producing high-quality, low-price journals and to reconfigure those journals for the online publication that libraries want.

Thus the headline, and thus the sense I get that there’s more going on here than “the ability of…nonprofit…societies to continue producing high-quality, low-price journals.” If all professional journals were low-price and truly nonprofit, libraries would not be “agitating” for changes in the model!

An article in C&RL News 64:10 (November 2003) makes this more confusing. The article, by Heather Joseph and Adrian W. Alexander, is “Two years after the launch: An update on the BioOne electronic publishing initiative.” Early in that article, we learn that BioOne, which currently includes 68 online journals, “represents the collective effort and financial commitment of five founding organizations”: SPARC, Allen Press, the University of Kansas, the Greater Western Library Alliance…and AIBS, the American Institute of Biological Science. BioOne provides “an academy-based alternative for the electronic publishing of journals by scholarly societies that lacked the financial and technical resources to become electronic publishers, and the continuing need for academic libraries to acquire high-quality scientific literature at a more reasonable cost.” And BioOne now includes “a small group of Open Access journals.”

Ah, but here’s the rub, late in the article: “As librarians have come to accept that BioOne will provide reliable and ongoing access to electronic journals, they are much more comfortable with dropping corresponding print subscriptions to the journals contained in the database.” Are the societies losing subscription revenues? “Thus far those cancellations have not come anywhere close to offsetting the additional revenue publishers have realized from the BioOne database, but the growing concern about this trend among BioOne publishers is palpable.”

Based on O’Grady’s editorial, I would say that’s right on the money. I won’t speculate as to the varieties of politics involved here!

December 4: Elsevier and BioMed Central

Jan Velterop of BioMed Central noted an interview in IMI Insights with Arie Jongejan of Elsevier, “Open Access: A step back in time?” According to Velterop, Jongejan tries to “expose a few ‘myths,’” and in the process “stretches Jongejan’s—and Elsevier’s—credibility to snapping point.”

The first “myth” is that traditional publishing models hinder access to content. Jongejan says it’s really about profitability, and that around 70% of the audience that might be interested in accessing Elsevier’s STM content can already do so. Velterop notes, “70% is not the 100% it should be”; any claim to know what parties “might be interested” in scholarly articles reflects “supreme arrogance”; and toll-access publishing limits the ability of scientists to “extract knowledge from the literature.”

Second “myth”: While open access supporters claim that traditional publishing favors readers that have funds over the ‘have nots,’ Jongejan claims that open access discriminates against authors based on ability to pay. Says Velterop: “In either case it is mostly the institutions who pay, not the individual readers or authors. The proposition of [Open Access] is that the money spent, in the aggregate…would be much better spent on making research available with Open Access.” He also notes that the Wellcome Trust, a major research funder, calculates that open access publishing charges would amount to less than one percent of funds granted. Jongejan expands on the “have not” issue by noting that authors in developing countries won’t have funds available—and that, thanks to the HINARI initiative, the poorest nations have free access to some of Elsevier’s journal. But, says Velterop, there are exceptions to developing-nation access to protect Elsevier’s profits—and BioMed Central (and some other open access publishers) routinely offer waivers to authors from developing nations.

Third “myth,” according to Jongejan: the “assumption that the current publishing process adds very little to the content being published. As far as Elsevier is concerned, refereeing and peer review is a key publisher offering and adds essential value to the content creation process.” Jongejan also says some open access players “take the role of review much less seriously” and mentions BioMed Central as an example. In this case, where Jongejan quotes a few words from BioMed Central’s peer review policy, Velterop—who I sometimes find a bit over the top—convinces me that Jongejan quoted out of context. That is, a BioMed Central policy designed to deter “least publishable unit” papers (what Velterop calls “salami slicing”) is used as a claim that BioMed Central allows partially-duplicative research.

The final “myth”: Jongejan claims that open access isn’t supportable—that “open access publishers will need to demand between $3,000 and $4,500 per article to cover publication costs.” That’s certainly more than the $500 (BioMed Central) to $1,500 (PLoS) range at present. But what’s happening here is simple, as Velterop points out: $4,500 is roughly Elsevier’s current revenue per published article—including profits, highly-paid executives, dozens of offices, the costs of print publishing, etc. (Velterop says that BioMed Central is about at the breakeven point.)

Disclaimer: I have not seen the original article. But I have seen and heard similar misrepresentations of open access elsewhere, e.g., the claims that it means abandoning copyright (not apparently made in this case), the insinuation that it won’t have true peer review or copy editing, the idea that as long as libraries cough up sums they really don’t have, everyone who needs access already has it. I’m inclined to go along with Velterop’s leading sentences: “It is never a good idea to throw stones if you live in a glass house. Especially not if you don’t understand your target.”

Fall 2003: Professional/Scholarly Publishing Bulletin

This is an interesting little bulletin from a division of AAP. One article in the six-page issue describes PSP’s “outreach campaign” to “remind…key audiences of the invaluable and indispensable role that publishers play as allies of the academic community in disseminating scholarly information.” But not just any publishers. The new phase will “reaffirm the value of traditional fee-subscription publishing in the face of an aggressive media blitz by some supporters of the recently announced Public Library of Science.” The article says PLoS “purports” to facilitate broader dissemination of vital information” and that PLoS supporters have made “emotional and misleading public statements about the nature of traditional publishing.” So PSP will produce documents about “the real nature of publishing.” The campaign has four “crucial points”:

Ø    “Publishers have helped lead the revolution in the dissemination of scholarly information” and found various ways to “make the latest research even more widely available.”

Ø    Patients and other interested parties can get at content that they might not have been able to reach without the “significant investment made by publishers.”

Ø    “Scientists typically rely on subscription-based journals more than any other source” because journals “filter and validate submissions, independent of any financial influence by the author or interested third parties.”

Ø    “Copyright-protected journal articles, including those based in part on federally funded research, are a major economic driver of scientific endeavors that ultimately benefit everyone…” And, somehow, copyright protection (turned over to publishers) “ensures that scientists and institutions are able to commercially develop published research into products, technologies, and treatment”—even though copyright does not protect facts and has nothing to do with whether research articles can be used to develop products!

There’s also a charming Chairman’s Corner that claims PLoS Biology must be “the most expensive journal launch ever,” noting that “time will tell whether this undoubted marketing success can be sustained and whether a continual attraction of high quality material will result,” and noting “concern in the original OA camp” [emphasis added] that the launch of OA journals “is diverting attention from the easiest, surest and quickest road to Open Access, namely author self-archiving.” The editorial then goes on to quote a certain notorious OA enthusiast grumbling about the focus on OA journals and saying that such journals are “reducing the perceived pressure to self-archive…”

Well, this is nice. It appears that the chairman of PSP is wholeheartedly in favor of Open Access, and presumably doing everything to make it work—but favoring one strategy. Then you get to the end of the article and the signature, which casts just the slightest bit of doubt on this: “Pieter Bolman, Elsevier.”

Fomenting dissension among the OA ranks? Not hard, given some of the personalities involved.

The Last Scholarly Article Access Roundup

I intend to reduce and refocus Cites & Insights coverage of scholarly article access and Open Access for several reasons:

Ø    Peter Suber does a superb job of covering Open Access and related issues in SOAN, SOAF, and the Open Access News weblog. He provides fair (that is, intellectually honest) summaries of articles and news items even when he disagrees with them, and adds his own comments in an ethical, insightful and enjoyable manner. If you’re interested in Open Access—and many of you should be—you should be reading SOAN and the weblog. If you are, then there’s no need for me to cite items from SOAN unless they’re in an area where I can bring added value. I now find much of my coverage redundant.

Ø    I am unwilling to deal with one of the major advocates of one aspect of OA, for a variety of reasons. That unwillingness weakens my ability to provide coherent discussions of the field as a whole. Add “incomplete” to “redundant.”

Ø    As this issue indicates, there’s too much that I’d like to cover—and I lack the energy to do as much as I am doing. I have to cut back somewhere. An area where my work is incomplete and redundant seems like an obvious candidate.

Note “reduce and refocus,” not eliminate. I’ll keep reading and observing. When I see a cluster of items that I believe I can make more meaningful by bringing them together and providing commentary, I’ll include them—particularly if they relate to the part of article access that I personally care most about. That part is both narrower and broader than scholarly article access. It is the ability of libraries to maintain resources that current and future users need, and the ability of agencies to continue the kinds of added-value access that librarians and indexers provide.

As a humanist, I am appalled at the thought that universities and colleges have stripped book budgets (and budgets for typically inexpensive humanities journals and periodicals) to the bone in order to keep paying outrageous prices for STM journals. As an observer, I have a complex set of opinions about the various strains contained within the current controversies. As appropriate, I’ll continue to comment.

Cites & Insights: Crawford at Large, Volume 4, Number 1, Whole Issue 44, ISSN 1534-0937, is written and produced at least monthly by Walt Crawford, a senior analyst at RLG. Opinions herein do not reflect those of RLG. Comments should be sent to Cites & Insights: Crawford at Large is copyright © 2004 by Walt Crawford: Some rights reserved.

Original material in this work is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial License. To view a copy of this license, visit or send a letter to Creative Commons, 559 Nathan Abbott Way, Stanford, California 94305, USA.