Open-access publishing and scholarly communication

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First published in: Piglet [staff newsletter of the University of Bath Library and Learning Centre], Vol. 8, No. 11, November 2003, pp. 13-14.


These are interesting times for scholarly communication. The phrase of the moment is 'open-access' publishing, journals that are freely available to end-users but which - in the most popular current business model - are paid for by charges levied on authors. For example, BioMedCentral ( - one of the commercial pioneers of this approach - charge authors US$500 per article which are then made freely available through the journal's Web page. Some established publishers are also beginning to experiment with the model. For example, the journal Nucleic Acids Research - published by Oxford University Press - will be introducing author-charges in 2004 for its annual Database issue, which will in turn be made freely available through the journal's Web site and PubMed Central (

There have been a number of reasons for this recent upsurge of interest in open-access publishing models. Perhaps the most significant of these - or the one that has generated the most comment - was the publication in October of the first issue of the Public Library of Science's first open-access journal PLoS Biology ( The Public Library of Science (PLoS) is a not-for-profit organisation of scientists and medical practitioners dedicated to making the world's scientific and medical literature a public resource ( It was founded in 2000, when it organised an open letter - eventually signed by over 30,000 scientists - that called on scientific publishers to make research articles freely available through online public libraries of science (like PubMed Central) six months after publication. The immediate response from publishers not being deemed sufficient, PLoS aims now to demonstrate that open access publishing can work by specifically targeting élite journals like Nature, Science, and Cell. With considerable financial support for setting-up from the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation, PLoS charges authors US$1,500 per article, much higher than the BMC journals but lower than the charges ultimately proposed by Nucleic Acids Research. Another open-access journal, PLoS Medicine, is scheduled for publication next year.

The ultimate success of the open-access business model will depend upon the willingness of those who fund research to pay for publication 'up-front.' There has been some progress on this point. For example, earlier this year the Howard Hughes Medical Institute announced that it would pay its investigators a fixed amount per year to support publication charges. In early October, the Wellcome Trust - a charity that supports medical research - issued a position statement that supported "open and unrestricted access to the published outputs of research" and said that it was prepared to meet the cost of publication charges. Later the same month, an international group of research funding organisations - including the Deutsche Forchungsgemeinschaft (DFG), the Max-Planck-Gesellschaft, and the French Centre national de la recherche scientifique (CNRS) - signed the 'Berlin Declaration on Open Access to Knowledge in the Sciences and Humanities,' encouraging grant recipients to publish their work according to the principles of the open access paradigm.

There is much that is not known about how open-access journals may change scholarly communication. They have been criticised for not taking account of scholars based in developing countries or those who have little or no research funding. There are also concerns that large, well-funded, open-access publishers might compete monopolistically with smaller ones. Some critics have commented that quality-levels may suffer because - despite the presence of peer-review - publishers ultimately have a financial interest in publishing papers, not in attracting readers. Another potential problem is the long-term sustainability of open-access publishers and the long-term availability of the content of the journals that they publish. While, in principle, this problem is no different to that faced by the existing corpus of e-journal content, the author-pays business model may mean that open-access journals are more vulnerable to changes in scholarly fashion or practice. One can see a ongoing role for national and research libraries in ensuring that open-access content remains available to users long after journals and publishers have ceased to exist. One encouraging sign is that some supporters of open-access principles - in particular PLoS - have emphasised parallels with the deposit of sequence data in public databases like GenBank ( and the EMBL Nucleotide Sequence Database ( These are managed on behalf of the scientific community by publicly funded organisations - in these cases, the National Center for Biotechnology Information (NCBI, part of the US National Library of Medicine) and the European Bioinformatics Institute. The strong links between PLoS and NCBI (who run PubMed Central) mean that the content of PLoS journals are likely to persist (in some form) for the foreseeable future. It is less clear if the same applies to smaller open-access journals, or to commercial ones.

A final criticism of open-access publishing is that the massive amount of publicity that it has been receiving recently has drawn attention away from the real and immediate gains for open-access that can be achieved through the 'self-archiving' of published papers through personal home pages or institutional e-print repositories (I will return to this topic in a future article).

There are many potential practical outcomes for libraries from these ongoing changes in scholarly communication. As a first step, it may be appropriate - depending on collection development strategies - to include selected open-access journals in Web-based e-journal lists or library OPACs. Secondly, librarians need to make themselves continually aware of changes in the way scholars conduct and publish research. For example, the 'self-archiving' of papers, reports, etc. on institutional Web servers or in repositories may (over time) result in changes to the use of physical journal collections or services like document delivery.

Selected links:

Berlin Declaration on Open Access to Knowledge in the Sciences and Humanities:

Wellcome Trust position statement in support of open access publishing:

Further reading:

Patrick O. Brown, Michael B. Eisen, and Harold E. Varmus, "Why PLoS became a publisher." PLoS Biology, 1(1), October 2003, 1-3. Available:

Declan Butler, "Who will pay for open access?" Nature, 425, 9 October 2003, 554-555. Available:

Richard Horton, "21st-century biomedical journals: failures and futures." The Lancet, 362, 8 November 2003, 1510-1512. Available:

Susan R. Owens, "Revolution or evolution?" EMBO Reports, 4(8), 2003, 741-743. Available:


Michael Day, UKOLN, University of Bath