Open access journals success route for scientific publishing

Scholarly publishing must compromise with new open publishing initiatives, study finds
December 7, 2005

Whether traditional scholarly publishers are ready for it or not, open access journals are a growing phenomenon. Some of the initial concerns about quality are diminishing and the number of researchers either using the medium to publish findings, or to keep up with each other’s work, is on the rise, according to the latest survey on new journal publishing models.

 There is no hiding the fact that a major shift in the nature and format of scholarly communication is underway. It has its advocates but it also has its detractors. But just how much does the research community know about open access journals or media, such as BioMed Central? And what do senior researchers think of the growing trend towards publishing findings in peer-reviewed online media?

CIBER, an independent think tank based at University College London, sought answers to these questions and many more in their study of ‘New Journal Publishing Models’. Findings in the study confirm those in a similar study carried out in 2004. But a year is a long time in the cyber world, and many new findings were revealed.

For example, according to the report’s authors, Ian Rowlands and Dave Nicholas, the research community is now much more aware of the open access alternative (OA). A total of 29% of the 5 513 senior authors surveyed say they have published in an open access journal, compared with 11% one year earlier. Similarly, 30% of authors surveyed claimed to know “a lot” or “quite a lot” about open access journals – up from 18% in 2004.

The CIBER report – commissioned by the Publishers Association and the International Association of Scientific, Technical and Medical Publishers – reveals that scholarly authors place little importance on retaining their copyright in a published article, and feel the main importance of the peer-review system is to preserve the “health and welfare” of scholarly publishing – a point confirmed by last year’s survey.

Priced out
There was a clear divide, the study suggests, in approval ratings for open access journals between younger “enthusiasts” from Asia, Africa and Eastern Europe and their more conservative mid-career colleagues rooted in what the authors call the “Anglosphere mainstream”.

Rowlands and Nicholas found that respondents strongly believe OA improves accessibility to research – 75% surveyed agreed with the statement “High prices make it difficult to access journals” – but they balk at agreeing it will improve quality. In fact, a clear majority think that “mass migration to open access would undermine scholarly publishing”, suggesting a midway is needed.

One respondent touched on this midway point in his remark: “The scholarly publishing community has to find a compromise with the new open publishing initiatives in order to survive. It is time to think about smaller, but fair and realistic profit.”  Another senior researcher alluded to a shakeout in the sector, saying that if OA simply adds more capacity to the system, it will have some negative effects “unless competition drives some of the weaker journals out of existence”. 

Another turn-up for the books in the survey was that senior authors consider ‘downloads’ to be a more credible measure of the usefulness of research than traditional citations. The average research article published by BioMed Central – an online publisher providing open access to peer-reviewed research – in the last year received more than 1 100 ‘opens’ in the first three months of being published. The Public Library of Science (PLoS) is another OA publisher. Its journals, such as PLoS Biology and Medicine, even have top ten lists of papers being read. Top spot on the PLoS Biology site, at the time of writing, goes to the paper ‘Ultrasonic Songs of Male Mice’.

Apart from the onerous cost of subscriptions and one-off downloads putting researchers off traditional journals, one criticism coming out of the study was that the turnaround time for peer-reviewed journals is too long – making the work, in some cases, out of date by the time it actually appears. This hurdle is overcome by fast-track publishing online, one respondent confirms. Another surveyed senior author offers a suggestion on how to improve research paper quality: “There should be a place for preliminary publication on the website of a journal so that comments, criticisms and answers … might be incorporated in the final text.” 

Many of the points raised in this article will be discussed during some sessions at the Commission-hosted ‘Communicating European Research 2005’ (CER 2005) event taking place today and tomorrow at the Brussels Exhibition Centre, Heysel. More open and better communication of research findings is also an acknowledged objective of the EU’s Sixth Research Framework Programme, and is enshrined in the Berlin Declaration on open access to knowledge in the sciences and humanities.
[Source: Europa]

Links:Full CIBER report 

BioMed Central