There’s a difference between the man in the street who wants to find out about the disease that is afflicting his mother-in-law, and scientists who want to reuse and reassess the data that have been published by their peers.
Professor Maria Leptin
A study published last week in BioMed Central’s open access journal BMC Medicine
comparing the scientific impact of traditional subscription-based journals with open access publishing has shown that both models result in high quality, peer reviewed journals with similar levels of impact. This, argues the researchers, gives the lie to the accusation – or sometimes assumption – that the open access business model produces journals of a lower quality.
The analysis was based on citation data for 610 open access journals and 7000 subscription journals, with the citation rates for the latter being overall 30 per cent higher. However, when older open access journals from regions such as Latin America were factored out, the difference became negligible.
"If you take into account the journal discipline, location of publisher and age of publication the differences in impact between open access and subscription journals largely disappear," explained co-author Professor Bo-Christer Björk from Hanken School of Economics in Helsinki. "In medicine and health, open access journals founded in the last ten years are receiving on average as many citations as subscription journals launched during the same time."
"Open access journals that fund publishing with article processing charges (APCs) – sometimes called gold open access – are on average cited more than other open access journals," added Professor David Solomon of Michigan State University. "Since the launch of professionally-run high quality biomedical journals in 2000, gold open access has increased by 30 per cent per year and many of these are on a par with their subscription counterparts."
Although there are many arguments for open access and many keen advocates of it, there are more complicated underlying issues, such as those challenged by this research. Some of these were addressed in a session at the Euroscience Open Forum (ESOF) 2012 meeting in Dublin earlier this month.
Chaired by Professor Luke O’Neill of Trinity College, Dublin, the ‘debate’ turned out to be more consensual than had perhaps been expected considering the spectrum of organisations represented. It would seem that the majority of those in the science and scientific publishing community have accepted that at least some degree of open access is both beneficial and inevitable. The discussion is no longer centred on whether or not open access is the future of academic publishing, but on how the transition to it can be best managed.
"I completely support the mantra that if the public paid for this research they should have access to it, but that is a slightly sweeping statement when you ask what the public actually want access to," pointed out Philip Campbell, Editor-in-Chief of Nature
. "What they want is a good presentation of the research; a presentation that is selected for them to a degree, a presentation that is edited so that it is not only consistent within itself but conforms to standards so that somebody who understands the field can relate it to other papers. Incidentally, they also want to be able to access it at all."
Professor Maria Leptin, Director of the European Molecular Biology Organisation (EMBO), also maintained a distinction between the various motivations for requiring or wanting access to journals and research papers, saying: "There’s a difference between the man in the street who wants to find out about the disease that is afflicting his mother-in-law, and scientists who want to reuse and reassess the data that have been published by their peers."
Speaking also on behalf of the Initiative for Science in Europe (ISE), of which she is President, Professor Leptin formed her argument from the perspective of learned societies and scientific organisations within Europe, many of which derive a large share of their income from the publication of journals. Many learned societies fund training, travel and scholarships, and organise conferences and other networking or educational activities.
"Importantly, these groups are grass-roots, self-organised units within science," she stated. "They have nobody above them who funds them, tells them where to go or determines what they do. Transnational societies create communities across borders. They provide a healthy diversity in the culture of science and in the science community. Why is all this relevant? Because the funds for these societies often come from publishing and it’s this income that allows them to independently support their activities.
"Publishing does not exist in an economic vacuum," Professor Leptin continued. "We know that open access was, in part at least, driven by anger at the greed of some of the publishers, who make huge profits off the back of publically funded science. This does not mean that open access can be done for free, but neither does it mean that making money from publishing is necessarily bad."
Campbell agreed, as did each of the participants in the debate, that the shift towards open access is well underway, whether it is welcomed or not.
"I think what is absolutely inevitable on quite a short timescale is that green open access will become the minimum requirement from many funding agencies including the EU," he said. "Whether gold open access where you have money to pay for that immediate access will become a requirement is much less clear."
Also on stage was Dr Alma Swan, Director of European Advocacy for the Scholarly Publishing and Academic Resources Coalition (SPARC). She expressed the belief that, far from compromising quality, open access will enable individual researchers to be assessed on their own merit rather than by proxy measures such as the reputation of the journal in which their work appears. Dr Swan also stressed the need for improved business models if open access is to reach full potential.
"I think we have to start looking at moving the money right to the front end of the system and paying for the service we get from publishers," she stated. "One of the things publishers say they add value through is the peer review process, and I agree. They should be paid for this rather than for the filtering process."
Her position echoed that of Professor Jos Engelen, Chairman of the governing board of the Netherlands Organisation for Scientific Research (NWO).
"In my opinion what we need is a new business model," he explained. "I think that the transition problems have been exaggerated. However, we have to act coherently, as science funders and as scientists."
"Open access is best for research, for researchers, for funders, and for society," Dr Swan reiterated. "When we talk about society we’re not just talking about people who have family members with an illness that they want to know more about; we’re talking about industry and commerce. The companies creating wealth in our society are innovative companies which need access to basic research. They don’t need access to journals; they need access to papers."
Professor Leptin perhaps summed up the problem most acutely when she urged a measured approach to overseeing the advent of open access publishing in order to protect the ongoing work of learned societies and scientific organisations.
"We must make sure that the open access steamroller does not crush positive aspects of the existing publishing culture as long as we have no solutions for the whole breadth of problems," she concluded. "The goal is clear – open access is a good thing – but transition is the challenge."