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Open access wide open

Open-access publishing has been heralded both as the savior of scientific literature and the death of publishing, but after less than a decade of the practice, its impact remains uncertain. A new review indicates that the success of these free and open journals also remains to be seen.

The movement to make scientific journals freely available has been growing worldwide in recent years.

About 1,600 journals have followed the open-access model, whereas more than 20,000 non-open-access journals are regularly published around the world. The movement to make scientific journals freely available has been growing worldwide in recent years, with added attention in the United States due partly to a policy introduced last year by the National Institutes of Health. The federal agency encourages its researchers to enter their papers in an online database open to the public, within six months of publication.

Part of the impetus for the movement comes from institutions that are struggling with the increasing costs of journal subscriptions, as their budgets remain stagnant or decrease. For example, Pennsylvania State University’s Van Pelt Library recently cut 2,255 journal subscriptions to reduce costs, according to The Daily Pennsylvanian, and the university’s policy has encouraged its researchers to make their papers available internally. Critics, however, worry that open-access publishing will undermine peer-review and other editorial practices that safeguard the quality of the content published.

To try to gauge the varying business plans, practices and financial success of all existing open-access journals, the Association of Learned and Professional Society Publishers (ALPSP), based in West Sussex, United Kingdom, partnered with the American Association for the Advancement of Science, HighWire Press and others to fund a global survey of scientific literature published by nonprofit organizations and commercial presses. The anonymous responses to the questionnaire yielded a wide-ranging portrait of journal publishers.

The big surprises, says Sally Morris, head of the ALPSP, came from data showing that the majority of open-access journals responding did not charge author fees to publish their research, which is a different policy from two-thirds of non-open-access publications. Open-access journals tend to be “more reliant on grant funding or internal subsidy, which is slightly invisible,” Morris says, including staff, computing resources and other services provided by a university or other institution. Those subsidies are significant for the journals, of which, on average, are in their sixth year of publication — the general time period when most new journals can be considered established, editorially and financially.

Morris says that for most open-access journals, editorial oversight was higher than expected, but not quite as high as the peer-review standards set by more established journals. Three-quarters of these journals also copyedit texts, but to a lesser extent than non-open-access publications do. When removing the two largest publishers of full open-access journals, which account for almost half the total number reporting, the trends were similar for both open- and non-open-access publications, however.

The survey’s “diversity of responses and strategies” indicates “the diversity of content types, mission, need, audiences” and other factors for journals, says Michael Jensen, director of publishing technologies for the National Academies Press, in Washington, D.C. That breadth, he says, is “probably more indicative of the transitional characteristics of this peculiar period in scholarly publishing.”

Indeed, journals’ practices and business plans vary widely, as do the accepted practices across disciplines, Morris points out. Some traditional journals now make their content free after a limited amount of time during which readers must pay to access content. “What I think will happen,” says Christian Toelg, director of business development for NEC Laboratories America, “is that you will be able to find many research papers online for free, either through Web search[es] or digital archives. What will make the difference will be the services you get on top of the actual content.” Value-added activities, such as copyediting, he says, eventually may allow publishers “to make up for lost content revenue with service revenue.”

Naomi Lubick

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