Campaign to make science reports freely available
Jun 20, 2002 09:55 PDT
Campaign to make science reports freely available
by Nuala Moran
Financial Times, June 19, 2002
Unlike any other category of writer or author, scientists seldom make money
from seeing their work in print. Instead, being published in a scientific
journal is a means to an end, to communicate research findings with peers.
This significant difference left scientific publishers looking distinctly
exposed when the rise of the internet gave scientists direct access to
their readers - other scientists.
Sure enough, journal publishers have come under pressure from initiatives
inspired by scientists who wanted their work to be freely available.
Perhaps the best example is PubMed Central, a web site set up by the
National Institutes of Health, the prestigious US biomedical research body,
with the aim of creating a single repository of all published biomedical
Publishers were invited to make their journals available free on the site.
To date very few have agreed to do so, and mostly at least six months after
PubMed Central also wants to add value, by allowing scientists a single
point of entry to an online medical library, providing tools so they could
search across all journals, and access related public databases such as
those holding gene sequences or protein structures.
Meanwhile, the Public Library of Science (PLS), a scientists' pressure
group, began a campaign to make scientific literature freely accessible to
scientists and the general public, "for the benefit of scientific progress,
education and the public good."
Since November 2000 more than 30,000 scientists from 177 countries have
signed an open letter from PLS, urging publishers to allow research to be
distributed freely by independent, online public science libraries. The PLS
called on signatories to boycott journals that did not comply.
Publishers have also been subject to a moral imperative to allow free
access to scientists and clinicians in developing countries. At the
instigation of the Secretary General of the United Nations, Kofi Annan, the
World Health Organisation approached six of the leading journal publishers
to make their research available on Health InterNetwork, a UN programme to
improve health in developing countries. As a result, the Health
InterNetwork Access to Research Initiative (Hinari) was launched in July 2001.
The founding members are Blackwell, Elsevier Science, Harcourt
International (since acquired by Elsevier), John Wiley and Wolters Kluwer.
Between them they have made 1,500 journals available free to institutions
in countries with a gross national product per capita of below $1,000, and
at a reduced rate in other developing countries.
Then, in February this year, George Soros, the financier and philanthropist
backed a new effort to provide free and unrestricted access to the
literature, launching the Budapest Open Access Initiative with a $3m grant.
Traditional scientific publishers also came into competition with new,
virtual rivals, most notably, BioMedCentral, the first internet-only
scientific publishing company, which arrived on the scene promising not
only that there would be no hard copy version of its journals, but that all
its information would be free.
BioMedCentral gets its revenue from advertising and an article processing
charge of $500, payable by individual scientists or their institutions, for
manuscript production and editing costs.
The company, based in London, further challenged traditional scientific
publishers by saying it would use end-to-end electronic processes to cut
the time taken to publish an article to no more than eight weeks. For
printed journals it is not unusual for it to take six months or more for an
article to be published.
These, and other moves put traditional publishers in a spin, leaving them
to argue that they are not merely a conduit for disseminating scientific
papers, but add significant value, not only through the intellectual input
of editing them, but also in running the peer review system by which
articles are subjected to the scrutiny of scientific peers.
Mary Waltham, formerly president of Nature, and managing director and
publisher of The Lancet, and now an independent consultant advising
publishers on their electronic strategies, says the fundamental value that
publishers add is still needed on the internet.
"I see no influence on the concept of peer review, only on the process.
Peer review may be more mechanised, but it is not going away. After all,
formal publication in peer-reviewed journals is still what career
progression depends on."
Like most old economy companies, scientific publishers had to defend
themselves against the threat of virtual competition at the same time as
reformulating their business models to take advantage of internet
technologies to cut costs and become more efficient. The sector is very
fragmented with many very small publishers without the means, or the
know-how, to publish electronically.
Scientific publishing is the specialism of one of the few successful
venture-funded dotcoms, Ingenta plc, which spun out of the University of
Bath in May 1998. It manages and distributes research via the net and hosts
e-journals for publishers.
The company's services include data conversion to electronic formats,
secure online hosting, access control, collecting pay-per view payments and
Ingenta is not in competition with established publishers says Mark Rowse,
chief executive. "When the net began to evolve, publishers were confused
about if they needed to control the distribution process.
"We're providing a service which is analogous to printing and distributing
a printed journal."
Ingenta manages 12m articles from over 5,400 online publications, and is
accessed by over 5m researchers a month via Ingenta.com, or links from
other websites. The company claims nine of the top 10 leading scientific
publishers as clients, including Elsevier with 1,428 publications and
Blackwell with more than 600.
Adding the e-channel has increased publishers' costs, but going online is
pushing up revenues. In the six months ended March 2002 Ingenta's turnover
was ý7.1m, of which 20 per cent came from pay per view. "This is coming
from people who aren't subscribers, so although the revenue is shared with
us, it is beginning to represent significant new income for publishers."
Scientists are also demanding aggregation, so they can search across all
titles from a single point.
Mr Rowse says that although publishers have resisted such moves, they are
becoming more reconciled. "They see it a bit like being in the Yellow Pages
if you are plumber. They want to be in it, but have to accept that they
will appear alongside their competitors."
Ms Waltham agrees that in the past two years publishers have become less
nervous of aggregation. "For small and medium publishers, scientific
portals do allow them to reach bigger markets. And there is now a
recognition that the Journal of Keyhole Surgery.com can't expect readers to
flock direct to its web site."