Journal free for all: The electronic future of scientific publishing

With subscription costs mounting and the Internet more accessible, some researchers and publishers are asking if the current way is still the best way to get science out into the world.

By Victoria Stagg Elliott — Posted April 19, 2004

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Last month, Harold Varmus, MD, president of the Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center in New York, needed a specific article from one of the many journals usually held by his institution's library.

But the Nobel prize winner and former director of the National Institutes of Health couldn't get his hands on the information he wanted. The library was in the midst of a dispute with the publication, leaving him the option of waiting for the disagreement to be resolved or punching in his own credit card number.

"I'm affiliated with a prestigious institution that has many subscriptions, but I have my frustrations," Dr. Varmus said. "And once you click off our own network, it's impossible."

There are signs, though, that his access, and that of others, soon might come with fewer barriers. Medical and scientific publishing is becoming increasingly electronic while subscription costs for many journals have outstripped the rate of inflation. According to the Assn. of Research Libraries, prices for serial publications -- including academic journals, newspapers and magazines -- increased 215% from 1986 to 2001, while the consumer price index went up 62%.

"A subscription model may no longer make sense in the Internet environment, and we should look at other ways," said Richard Johnson, director of the Scholarly Publishing and Academic Resources Coalition, an alliance of universities and research libraries working on pricing issues of medical, technical and scientific journals.

And there is political pressure as well as a result of the increasing acknowledgement that scientific journals are a breed apart from most other publishing sectors because so many people depend on the knowledge generated by them. Hearings were held on the issue last month in the United Kingdom. In the United States, legislation was introduced in the House last year that would have removed copyright protection from research substantially funded by the federal government. Though the measure has little chance of advancing, it has stimulated debate.

Change in the air

Even without legislation, signs of change are becoming visible. Scientific journal publishers, editors, contributors, clinicians, readers and librarians long have shared the goal of increasing access to published scientific and medical information to speed progress and improve care.

This goal, however, seemed unachievable when paper was the only way to publish. Now market forces and the ease of distribution through electronic publishing have led traditional journals to allow free access to an increasing number of their papers online, particularly the older ones.

For instance, the Journal of the American Medical Association announced in January that it would allow open access for articles older than 6 months and younger than 5 years. Both JAMA and American Medical News are published by the AMA.

In March, a coalition of 48 nonprofit publishers, including the American College of Physicians and the American Academy of Pediatrics, issued the Washington D.C. Principles for Free Access to Science, pledging free worldwide access immediately or within months of publication of their journals.

Commercial publishers also are setting up online information systems to allow greater institutional access to their publications.

A handful of others, however, are taking the concept of universal access a step further -- announcing that all of their material, whether related to basic or clinical science, will be available at no cost. The authors and the institutions that fund them, not the readers, will pay for peer review and online posting, with a fee ranging from $500 to $1,500 per study. Paper copies, if desired, could be printed out by readers.

An example of such an undertaking is that of the nonprofit Public Library of Science. It was founded in October 2000 as a coalition of research scientists, including Dr. Varmus, who share the objective of working toward "making the world's scientific and medical research a public resource," according to the coalition's Web site.

The group concluded that it might be more influential if it founded its own journal run according to its principles and received a $9 million grant from the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation in December 2002 to do just that. The first issue of PLoS Biology for the basic sciences hit the Internet in October 2003. PLoS Medicine is set to launch this fall.

"Having a world that is increasingly connected to the Internet gives us this new possibility of sharing scientific articles much more effectively," said Barbara Cohen, PhD, senior editor at PLoS.

Dr. Varmus is also on the board of BioMed Central, a Great Britain-based, for-profit open-access publisher with a similar business approach. It was launched in June 1999. BioMed Central publishes more than 100 journals, including their flagship Journal of Biology for the basic sciences as well as BMC Family Practice for primary care

"The goal of any author of a scientific paper is to make one's findings as widely available as possible," Dr. Varmus said. "And the moral imperative for open access is even greater in the clinical sciences. You have doctors who are paying taxes and want to know what the federal government's research has discovered who don't have a link to a university library where they can go and download things. They can't afford all these subscriptions. Why shouldn't they have access?"

That's why some people suggest that a more equitable means of information dissemination would result if research institutions reallocate resources from subscription costs to actually paying for the cost of publication. But it is this concept of "open access" that causes the most controversy. Many experts question whether this business model would lead to both the publication of the highest quality research with the most reader access in an economically viable way that still maintains ethical standards.

"It's got tremendous buzz," said John Regazzi, PhD, director of market development at Elsevier, an international publisher of more than 1,800 journals. "But we're concerned about what a pay-to-publish model does to the integrity of the process, what does it do to the quality, does it get influenced and does it get biased. How does it change the economics of our business?"

Critics charge that open-access journals run the risk of becoming vanity presses, producing questionable research that may undermine public trust in science. They also question whether an author-pay model might favor commercially funded research. "Authors pay, then the decision-making of what you chose could be -- I'm not saying it would be -- but it could be based on which authors can pay rather than who's got the better paper," said Catherine DeAngelis, MD, MPH, editor-in-chief of JAMA. "You also might, if your budget is getting a little lean, decide to just accept more papers and you start taking things that maybe you shouldn't take because you need the money."

But the open-access backers recognize these possible pitfalls and say their success is pinned on avoiding them. Lower scientific and ethical standards would be bad business, because such circumstances would serve to make for throwaway journals.

"All the material we publish is peer-reviewed to at least the same standards as it is for all the thousands of journals published by the traditional science publishers," said Jan Velterop, publisher of BioMed Central. "Nobody can publish just because they pay."

How open is open?

But there is also debate over what level of access actually constitutes "open access."

Commercial publishers offer the argument that, because of the large number of institutional subscribers they have, most people are only a short drive away from a library at which they could gain access to the information they need. Readers also have the option of paying a modest fee for a single article.

"More people have more access to more research than ever before at a lower per-access cost," said Susan Spilka, spokeswoman for John Wiley & Sons Inc., which publishes more than 400 journals. "Anyone who needs to access scientific literature has a number of options."

The publishers that allow free access to some of their material, albeit not all, say their model allows significant access while still making business sense. They don't have faith that the open-access model is viable and note that a business model that cannot support itself would mean no one would be able to get the scientific studies.

"There are journals out there that can reduce their embargo time to six months, but there are journals that will fold if they do that," said Martin Frank, PhD, spokesman for the D.C. Principles and executive director of the American Physiological Society.

But there is also the argument that allowing access only to institutions with licenses constitutes too significant of a barrier to be truly open. These licenses are expensive and may be out of reach for many library budgets. And interlibrary loan, another option, is a slower route. But many believe that publishers that have managed to strike some kind of a balance and allow some free material are making steps in the right direction.

"The fact is that people don't drop everything and go to the library when they would benefit from having ready access to the information, and many public libraries simply cannot afford scientific journals," SPARC director Johnson said. "Having open archives is a step in the right direction, but it's not the end of the story. Six months can be a long time, particularly in medicine."

Still, many question how much information really needs to be out there and widely available. Most people are buried in information of varying quality, and they might not really want or need access to these studies. It could be that open access to just the abstracts or news stories about the studies would be enough.

"Open access seems like an idea that is coming, but is not ready for prime time," said Michael Rodriguez, MD, MPH, associate professor in family medicine at the University of California, Los Angeles. "Physicians are overwhelmed by the mass of information that they get sent. For patients, [open-access journals] can increase access to papers, but they can also potentially increase confusion."

Many physicians are also skeptical that these journals will survive or that the studies published will have much impact. Many do believe, however, that they will change academic publishing much like Napster influenced the music industry. Access will be easier and cheaper, but not necessarily free.

"Open access is an attempt to restructure the old copyright, financial and power aspects of the biomedical publishing industry in a way that I don't think is really going to fly," said Michael Jacobson, MD, MPH, an internist based in New York. "But I do think that the challenge that open access makes to traditional publishing will force publishers to make concessions that they should have made quite a while ago."

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Getting access

A sampling of journal policies:

  • Annals of Family Medicine Open access to all online content.
  • Annals of Internal Medicine Open access to studies first published online, of particular importance, or older than 1 year.
  • Archives of Internal Medicine Open access to editorials, letters, book reviews and news.
  • British Medical Journal Currently open-access to all content, but will start charging for access to some articles in January 2005.
  • Journal of the American Medical Association Free online access immediately to one major study per issue; open access to all studies older than 6 months and younger than 5 years.
  • The Lancet Open access to selected content.
  • New England Journal of Medicine Access to content 6 months or older.
  • Obstetrics and Gynecology Access to abstracts and table of contents.
  • Pediatrics Open access to selected content.

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Opening access to the less-developed world

While the debate over access to scientific studies and new research rages on in the United States and the United Kingdom, the discourse is different in regard to less-developed nations. In response to their unique needs, many publishers and international health advocates are working to address the "digital divide" that sometimes blocks developing world researchers and physicians from accessing any research.

Those backing the author-pay open-access publishing model argue that it would make access easier to scientists from poorer countries. Commercial publishers, however, also are working to improve access. Most participate, in some form, in the World Health Organization's Health InterNetwork Access to Research Initiative. This initiative, launched in July 2001, made available thousands of journals, free or at reduced cost. to the world's poorest nations.

Experts concede, though, that bridging the gap between rich and poor could mean more than just allowing free access. Thus, HINARI includes provisions for making available software and hardware as well as training for researchers and librarians.

"It's no good just offering a journal free to a poor country with little infrastructure," said Robert Campbell, president of Blackwell Publishing, publisher of nearly 700 journals, mostly for medical societies. "You've got to get in there and help them, train their librarians, and get the systems in place. The cost of the journal isn't really the problem. It's the infrastructure."

HINARI offers the content of 2,200 journals from 28 publishers, including JAMA. The service is free to 69 countries with a gross domestic product per capita of less than $1,000. Another 43 countries with a GDP per capita between $1,000 and $3,000 pay $1,000 per year.

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External links

"Access to the JAMA," Journal of the American Medical Association, Jan. 21 (link)

Open Access Now, BioMed Central (link)

Statement on open-access publishing from Elsevier (link)

The Scholarly Publishing and Academic Research Coalition Open Access Newsletter (link)

Washington, D.C., Principles for Free Access to Science (link)

Blackwell Publishing's statement on open-access publishing to the United Kingdom's House of Commons (link)

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