29 Oct 2007

Don't reinvent the wheel - jump on the bandwagon!

In A modest (billion-dollar) proposal, Alexandre Linhares suggests that "papers published online should be freely accessible to all, no login, no paywall, nothing in the way. Copyright should remain in the hands of authors".

I was surprised to read this, as I thought this was what we were doing already with the open access movement. I posted this in reply:

I completely agree. Stevan Harnad proposed something quite similar in his "Subversive Proposal" way back in 1994; he calls electronic publishing that is free of the tyranny of paper the "Post-Gutenberg World".

The Internet truly has allowed the beginnings of a revolution in scientific publishing. Vitek Tracz (my employer) launched BioMed Central in 1999, and Mike Eisen and Harold Varmus launched the Public Library of Science in 2000 (originally an advocacy organisation, now a publisher). BioMed Central and PLoS are the two biggest players in open access publishing. All our peer-reviewed research is immediately available online at no charge and with no access barriers. Copyright is retained by the authors. Under the Creative Commons license, anyone can copy and reproduce the articles: all anyone needs to do is properly attribute the source.

Some people thought that Vitek had lost it when he launched BioMed Central. Well, BioMed Central has seen our submissions double every 14-18 months, and PLoS has seen a similar rapid growth. Smaller open access publishers like JMIR, Hindawi, Libertas Academica are thriving. The impact on the world of publishing is clear – over the last two or three years, virtually every large biomedical publisher has begun to offer authors an option of publishing open access, and in physics CERN has even promised not to publish with any journal not offering an open access option.

The difference to your proposal is that we're not reliant on internet advertising, although we do make some income in this way. Being reliant on advertising risks making a journal answerable to its advertisers, as if they see something they don't like they can pull the plug - a similar state of affairs to that you claim that IBM Systems Journal is in. Because we don't charge readers, we've turned the funding model on its head. As publishing is in effect the final part of the research process, it makes sense to ask authors to fund the publication process, and we do this by charging authors (or more usually their institution or grant funding body) an article processing charge. This funding model scales perfectly with the amount of research conducted. PLoS has been quite reliant on philanthropic grants, but they are weaning themselves off these grants now that their high-volume journal PLoS ONE has been launched. There are several others way to fund open access journals, including society support; Peter Suber's blog is the best source of information on this.

The suggestion of only allowing searching on the journal website would leave a journal stillborn. The key to success is to have as many readers find and read the work as is possible – this is the whole point of open access! We are indexed and tracked by as many services as we can find, and we are mirrored by PubMed Central and on several other international websites. Authors want visibility, and that is what we give them.

Google have already made their first move into scientific publishing with Google Scholar, which is to my mind one of the most powerful ways to find scientific research. The full text of all of our articles is fully searchable by Google Scholar. Google's area of expertise is the organisation of information, and Google Scholar fits perfectly into this program. Microsoft is also moving in this direction – they have built their own literature search engine (Windows Live Academic Search), and Microsoft Research are sponsoring BioMed Central's latest research awards.

BioMed Central has its own publishing platform – we built it in-house, and we handle our own submissions, peer review and web publishing. We like to think that it is user friendly, we've certainly received positive feedback. We have an independent journals program that allows researchers and societies to launch new journals using our platform, or to transfer across existing journals. PLoS have their own platform and are working on an open source platform called Topaz, and an open source platform called Open Journal Systems is already being used by several small open access journals.

Our published articles already easily integrate figures and movies. Annotation of manuscripts and integration of figures and movies during peer review would be a boon, and several publishers included BioMed Central are looking into this, but it is hardly a 'killer app'. We can already handle LaTex (familiar to many mathematicians and computer scientists) and Wolfram’s Publicon, both easy for typesetting, and we have little trouble with MS Word or PDFs.

Google or Adobe don't need to reinvent the wheel, but they could certainly jump onto the open access bandwagon. It's already rolling at quite a pace.

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