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The myth of 'unsustainable' Open Access journals

Myths, if repeated often and widely, can perpetuate and beget new myths. The alleged �unsustainability� of the �input-paid� Open Access publishing model is such a second-order myth. The notion that the model is unsustainable has been expounded time and again and persists even in some recent contributions to this forum1. One could be forgiven for believing that the judgement of unsustainability must be rooted in a deep understanding of what the Open Access model actually entails, but that doesn�t quite seem to be the case. Unsustainability is only plausible if one assumes that the traditional publishers actually believe the underlying myths, which have in my view been countered2. Only a generous dose of wishful thinking keeps the myth of unsustainability alive.

Although myths and wishful thinking may abound, Open Access is not going to go away, however. The proverbial genie is out of the bottle. The benefits of Open Access are just too obvious. Should you be sceptical, consider this: the contributions to this very forum are all openly accessible. The logic is incontrovertible: it assures that the maximum number of interested readers is being reached. Just what the doctor (and postdoc) ordered for research literature! The issue is not �Open Access or not� anymore�that�s a station we�ve already passed. The issue now is about agreement on an economically sustainable model (or models) for Open Access. The myth of �unsustainability� thus has to be addressed.

Any business that can deliver what customers need or want, at a price that they are willing to pay, is sustainable. The crux of the matter lies in the phrase �the price customers are prepared to pay� for the �value� or �added-value� of a product or service. The Open Access model is sustainable as long as its customers are prepared to pay for the service they receive. The traditional model is the one that is unsustainable, precisely because its customers are no longer prepared to pay the asking price. In January of this year, the University of California Academic Senate called the traditional model �incontrovertibly unsustainable�3.

A legitimate question is, of course: who are the customers? Are they the librarians? Or are they the researchers? Or a combination of these? Although librarians usually pay the bill, this is on behalf of their institutions; the institutions are the real customers�on behalf of their students, in the role of �readers�, and their researchers, in the roles of both �readers� and �authors�. And, moreover, the bill is paid on behalf of those who fund the research carried out at their facilities by their researchers.

The fact that the article processing charges currently levied by Open Access publishers may seem too low for traditional publishers to be sustainable is one of the causes of their scepticism. Improved efficiencies can lower the production costs of every article published, however, although it is true that the current Open Access article charges may not sustain the level of profitability to which traditional publishers have grown accustomed. It is important to understand, however, that Open Access is not just a variation of traditional publishing, or simply a way to shift the costs from libraries�with their budget crises�to others. The difference is more fundamental and has to do with transparency and the sort of the role the publisher plays in the process.

What the scientific community needs and expects from the publishing process is clear: (a) registration; (b) validation; (c) dissemination; and (d) preservation. The publisher traditionally has a role in organizing and facilitating these functions. During the long period of evolution of print-based publishing, organization and facilitation took on characteristics of ownership of the material published. And ownership made bundling of services irresistible.

While arguably such bundling was inevitable in the print context, the internet has changed the publishing environment, so that publishers are now being forced to go back to the essence of their service to the scientific community: organizing and facilitating the process. The various services that together constitute the publishing process can be �unbundled� and each step can be offered�and charged for�separately. Why should print be bundled in the service, or indeed be performed by the same publisher? Or archiving? Or any other added-value services? They may of course be offered by the same publisher, but could perhaps be done more efficiently and cost-effectively by other agencies.

This unbundling goes further, of course, than what is now seen as being part of the publishing process. There are already familiar services that use the literature as �raw material� for further added-value, such as abstracting and citation analysis. Some of these may in future be automated and complemented by data- and text-mining services that more fully unleash the potential contained in scientific research results. Analyses that depend on information contained in many articles in many journals from many different publishers are made more feasible with Open Access.

There are obvious benefits if such services are rendered more efficiently and professionally, which is the raison d��tre of any publisher, particularly professional ones. Looking at publishing in such an �unbundled�way makes Open Access eminently possible as a business model, and intrinsically sustainable, providing the service to the scientific community that it needs. Given that much of science is publicly funded, Open Access to the science literature also acts as a service to society at large whose members paid for the research.

Jan Velterop
Director and Publisher
BioMed Central Limited


  1. Karen Hunter, �Open Access: yes, no, maybe�, Nature Web Focus �Access to the literature: the debate continues,� 19 March 2004
  2. See http://www.biomedcentral.com/openaccess/inquiry/myths.pdf
  3. See http://libraries.universityofcalifornia.edu/news/facmemoscholcomm_010704.pdf
© 2004 Nature Publishing Group
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