I had an interesting discussion over coffee at the recent SOAP Symposium about the question of whether the article processing fee revenue model for open-access journals disenfranchises authors with fewer financial resources. It prompted me to write up a fuller explanation of why this worry is misplaced.

Opportunity for full participation in research by as wide a range of scholars as possible is, of course, central to our meritocratic notion of the scholarly endeavor. Perhaps the biggest impediment to such full participation — to getting to the point where one has a scholarly result to present to the world — is gaining access to the facilities for carrying out research in the first place, including access to the published literature. It makes little sense to worry about disenfranchisement from publishing research results if the alternative is disenfranchisement from the reading that would allow generating the results in the first place. For that reason, open access to the scholarly literature is inherently an enfranchising program.

It also bears mentioning that it is not only open-access journals that charge author-side fees, the kinds of fees that critics complain are disenfranchising. Many subscription journals charge quite substantial fees as well. For NIH-funded research, the average is $1250 per article, which is plenty big enough to give your average developing-country scientist pause. One would be hard-pressed to impugn open-access journals on these grounds without roping in many subscription journals as well.

That being said, of course we want everyone to have the opportunity to publish in the scholarly literature, even those with lesser means. And there is a simple mechanism to allow for this with open-access journals that charge article processing fees. Journals can, should, and commonly do waive fees for necessitous authors. The details of these waiver policies differ. (See here for the PLoS policy or here for BioMed Central.) But the effect is the same: authors unable to afford the fees can still publish in these journals. More importantly, they can read the articles published in the journals too.

Some worry that authors requiring fee waivers may be discriminated against in the editorial process. Editorial processes must, of course, be kept separate from the financial processes. Different groups separated by a Chinese wall can handle the two issues. Indeed, the question of whether a waiver will be requested needn’t even be raised until an editorial decision on a paper is finalized, eliminating any possibility of a conflict of interest. PLoS has an especially simple method for handling waivers. After a paper is accepted for publication, authors can request a waiver of the fee, which is always granted.

Of course, the waiver idea can’t possibly be controversial. It is the same approach that subscription journal publishers use to address the reader-side disenfranchisement argument. They point out that the World Health Organization‘s Hinari program provides subsidized access to journals for scholars in a specified set of countries that have been deemed sufficiently impoverished.  A similar eligibility criterion could be used for processing fee waivers. But an approach based on targeting individuals rather than countries has much to recommend it. It can be much better focused on the real problem. For instance, it can address authors in needy cohorts who happen to live in a country not on the approved list. There are unemployed scholars in first-world countries or faculty at small schools in developing countries, for example, for whom Hinari is no help, whereas a fee waiver allows them to fully participate in the open-access publishing milieu on both the reading and writing side.

[UPDATE 1/21/11: The recent news that publishers have withdrawn Bangladesh’s access through the HINARI program (because Bangladesh is “start[ing] to secure active sales“) makes regrettably clear the problem with this approach. Just because some researchers in Bangladesh may now fall within the scope of an institutional subscription, all are deprived access.]

The issue of fee waivers is important, and we should actively promote their availability. By way of example, many COPE-compliant open-access funds — including those at Harvard, Cornell, Dartmouth, MIT, and Columbia — will only cover fees for journals that have a waiver policy. Hopefully, this will provide some impetus for OA journals to institute reasonable waiver policies.

Ironically, Nature Publishing Group is entering the OA arena with Scientific Reports,  a PLoS ONE competitor. Phil Davis reports that they are apparently not allowing for fee waivers, and points out that this could lead to a problem of adverse selection, where PLoS ONE ends up handling all of the fee-waived articles to their competitive disadvantage. On the other hand, if this turns out to be true, Scientific Reports will not be eligible for support from the COPE-compliant open-access funds as discussed above. There thus may be ways to mitigate the adverse selection problem.

With open access, we can enfranchise both the readers and the writers of the scholarly literature. We can, and we should.

Used by permission of PLoS

I’m flying back from Berlin, where I gave talks at the Academic Publishing in Europe (APE) Conference and the Study of Open Access Publishing (SOAP) Symposium. Karmically, the SOAP Symposium was held in the very room, in Harnack Haus of the Max Planck Society, where the Berlin Declaration on Open Access to Knowledge in the Sciences and Humanities was drafted in 2003. I’ll post links to those talks at this site when they become available. [Update 1/31/11: Links to the talks are now available at right.]

These several days of listening to presentations and talking with publishers, academics, and librarians have left me, I have to say, more optimistic about the potential future of open-access publishing than I’ve been in many years, maybe ever. Of course, that may not be saying much; I’ve never been very sanguine. But at the moment I’m marginally positive.

Over the past years, a transition path to relatively widespread open-access publishing has been obscure at best, and progress has been slow to nonexistent. Uptake, however measured, has been grudging, and author apathy overwhelming.

Especially problematic, but completely understandable, is the relatively slow uptake of authors in publishing in OA journals. Part, of course, is a numbers game: there are very few open-access journals of sufficient quality to provide more than a tiny fraction of the needed capacity, and little hope at the moment of remedying that situation given the lack of a viable revenue model for OA journals; it’s hard to imagine publishers starting a whole lot of OA journals if there’s no revenue model to keep them going in a sustainable, scalable manner. That’s the problem that COPE is attempting to address. In fact, that was the topic of my SOAP Symposium keynote.

Another contributing factor to authors’ ambivalence is their need to chase journal brand. Indeed, this is the main reason academics publish in journals — to get the imprimatur of the journal on their paper, since for better or worse (and, to my mind, mostly worse) that’s often what affects their career trajectory.

For a long time, I’ve assumed that a transition to a sizable role for OA publishing will require existing publishers to switch their existing journals to an OA publication-fee revenue model in order to cover enough of the scholarly fields, because the founding of enough new journals, whether by existing publishers or new ones, is a long and unlikely process, and won’t be able to address the brand development problem for even longer.

But recent developments may indicate a breakthrough from a surprising direction: PLoS ONE, a new kind of open-access mega-journal. This journal has a set of interlocking characteristics: broad scope (“primary research from any scientific discipline“), focused peer review for validity and soundness (but not field or predicted impact), reasonable publication fees, and post-publication article metrics and other services. Surprisingly (to me at least; I was frankly skeptical when PLoS ONE was launched) this model has shown tremendous popularity; submission growth has been geometric. Evidently, PLoS is able to provide a venue for verifying scientific validity over a huge range of fields and a huge number of articles, and make money doing it. PLoS One has become the largest peer-reviewed journal on earth, publishing almost 7,000 articles last year. It is single-handedly allowing PLoS to break even, subsidizing its higher-selectivity and field-focused journals.

Publishers have not failed to notice the dramatic success of PLoS ONE, and they are jumping on the bandwagon. SAGE announced SAGE Open, a mega-journal for “the social and behavioral sciences and humanities”, Nature Publishing Group is rolling out Scientific Reports (“all areas of the natural sciences— biology, chemistry, physics, and earth sciences”), and there’s BMJ Open (“medical research”), AIP Advances (“applied research in the physical sciences”), Genetics Society of America’s G3: Genes, Genomes, Genetics (“high-quality foundational research, particularly research that generates large-scale datasets”). As Mark Patterson, Director of Publishing for PLoS, pointed out in his talk at APE, all of these journals take up the PLoS ONE approach: broad scope, open access with an article-processing-fee revenue model, peer review for validity but not predicted importance or impact, post-publication article metrics and services, scalability, and a strong brand.

(NPG has decided not to use their trademark Nature in the name of their mega-journal, presumably out of fear that they would dilute the brand of their other journals. I think they are missing a strategic opportunity to strongly brand the new journal, based on a misapprehension that people primarily associate brand imprimatur with publisher journal collections rather than individual journals. PLoS ONE has shown that a publisher with an excellent high-quality brand association can run a mega-journal without diluting the brand signal of its flagship journals. I’d guess that sooner or later, we’ll start seeing the journal referred to as Nature Scientific Reports, even if the name doesn’t officially change.)

It seems extraordinarily likely that other major publishers will move in this direction as well. (You heard it here first.) [Update 5/25/11: Elsevier is now advertising for a Scientific Editor for a journal called Cell Reports from Cell Press, which “will publish high quality papers across the broadest possible range of disciplines in biology. It is an open access, online-only journal with continuous publication.” Sounds like PLoS ONE and Scientific Reports to me.] [Update 7/7/11: Bloomsbury has announced yet another new megajournal QScience Connect under sponsorship of the Qatar Science Foundation “for all research that is considered to be valid, ethical and correct”. Notably, they claim to cover “all fields”, including the traditional physical and life sciences, but also, math, computer science, law, the humanities, the social sciences, etc., etc.] [Update 1/12/12: Joining the other major scholarly publishers, Springer has launched SpringerPlus, covering “all disciplines of Science” with review based on scientific soundness alone.] [Update 1/17/12: I missed the December announcement of FEBS Open Bio, an OA megajournal published by Elsevier on behalf of the Federation of Biochemical Societies. The journal covers “the molecular and cellular life sciences in both health and disease” and reviews based on “soundness”, not “eventual importance”. Interestingly, this new journal would seem to compete directly with Elsevier’s other OA megajournal, Cell Reports. How they’ll handle that remains to be seen.]

The mega-journal trend means that strong traditional publishers with name recognition are entering open-access publishing in a big way. They’ll be hard pressed to trot out their hackneyed canards (vanity press, disenfranchisement). And these journals will provide coverage of a huge swathe of academic fields. Between SAGE Open, PLoS ONE, and Scientific Reports, essentially all of the social sciences, humanities, and natural sciences are covered. In addition, the breadth of these journals means that they will be competing for the same pool of articles. Authors will have a choice between submitting papers in genetics, say, to PLoS One or G3, in physics to AIP Advances or Scientific Reports, and so forth. Publishers will have to compete in order to attract authors, either on price or publisher services or both. They’ll have to market these journals to authors, using their intellectual capital to convince authors that OA journals (at least their OA journals) are a Good Thing. As authors and promotion committees get used to using the new article-level metrics (as they already increasingly are, with download counts and h-index), journal brand name — whether of these mega-journals or traditional journals — will become less important, and authors will feel freer to publish in these and other OA journals, again based on publisher services rather than journal brand name.

As an aside, I note that PLoS has another nascent service, PLoS Hubs, that could interact synergistically with the mega-journal trend as well. Hubs provide the ability to build subcollections of articles from PLoS ONE or other journals based on various selection criteria. At the moment, the hubs are specified and curated by PLoS editors, but you could imagine opening up the service to hubs based on whatever selection criteria a self-proclaimed editor chooses. For instance, I could put together a subcollection of articles in my own field, computational linguistics, essentially generating a bespoke computational linguistics journal of articles already vetted for validity by PLoS reviewers, and for field by me, and perhaps by predicted impact by a cohort of post-reviewers I assemble. It provides a platform for the kind of ecology of overlay journals that has been talked about for many years, but with little in the way of success. (Faculty of 1000 is a notable case for the life sciences, but hasn’t been replicated elsewhere.) The ability to have their articles participate in such hubs would provide mega-journal authors with the ability to generate cachet from imprimatur without the access limitations of traditional field-focused journals.

Mega-journals could be the new new thing that makes open-access publishing viable at scope. If so, Public Library of Science would have cracked it — not through its flagship but self-consciously retro journals but through its unlikely innovation PLoS ONE.

[Thanks to Mark Patterson for his APE talk and for providing me copies of his slides. And for publishing the PLoS journals.]