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Sunday 26 May 2019
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How journals can 'realistically' boost access

Not-for-profit publishers can bring a moderate and reasoned approach to the issue of access to literature that rises above the noise and polemicism which unfortunately currently characterizes much of the debate. Their journals are generally run by and for practising scientists; it is arguable, therefore, that their policy is focused on sustainability and service to the scientific community, free from the need to maximize profits. At the Journal of Cell Biology (JCB) I believe that we have maximized accessibility to those both reading and writing about science.

All JCB content is available free online 6 months after first publication. This brief period of restricted access allows us to charge reasonable subscription fees1, thus spreading the costs of publishing, reviewing and editing between authors and readers so that no single group bears an undue burden. This policy has provided us with a stable income to fund, for example, the recent archiving of the entire content of the JCB back to volume 1, issue 1, first published in 1955. This archive of abstracts and PDF files, which is full-text searchable and seamlessly linked to PubMed, is a free resource for the scientific community representing generations of the finest work in cell biology-and an unparalleled history of how our field grew from a curiosity to one of the most important bodies of knowledge in biomedical science.

This means that almost all of our content is free. We have also recently expanded the list of countries eligible for completely free access to all JCB and other Rockefeller University Press content. This group of 142 countries2 includes twice as many countries as are covered by similar initiatives at other journals (e.g. the United Nations' HINARI system3). In addition, the JCB is available at a substantial discount to colleagues in an additional 13 countries4.

Charging subscriptions has enabled us to provide these and many other services to the scientific community. We contend that this financial model is the only one that is sound and prudent for journals such as the JCB, i.e. top-tier journals which are published for and by active scientists on a not-for-profit basis.

The alternative is Open Access, in which authors pay all costs upfront. We believe that Open Access can be relevant to the very large number of low-tier journals where there is little publisher-added value, apart from a cursory review. This, combined with the fact that such journals also typically reject few papers, means that their operating costs are typically low, while high acceptance rates allows for these costs to be covered adequately by page charges, or 'open access dissemination fees'. Converting the swathe of low-tier journals to an Open Access model would also free libraries from spending enormous sums to maintain subscriptions to the many low-tier, archival journals that add little extra value and are not widely read anyway.

However, more selective journals, such as the JCB, are of necessity high-cost operations, producing a high quality product for which libraries should be-and are-willing to pay a subscription. Such journals draw more readers because of the time and money put into selecting papers, improving the science-based on high quality peer review and intensive editing, often making it more accessible by commissioning and publishing added reviews and editorial, with some adding extensive journalistic content. Because so few of the submitted papers are finally published, applying an Open Access/page charge model to these sorts of journals would not generate much income, even though the papers that are rejected still have to be processed by the journal.

It is difficult to see how the most prominent Open Access selective journal, PloS Biology, published by the Public Library of Science, could be financially viable in the long run without continued subsidies from grants or other ventures. Even if it is an acceptable 'one-off' model for the PLoS, it clearly cannot sustain extensive fields of scientific research. At the JCB , which has modest staff costs (with only two senior, in-house editors), it costs $8,000 per published paper, given a 15-20 per cent acceptance rate. Moreover, this includes only the cost of producing an article on-line, and does not include the additional costs associated with managing subscriptions or printing and mailing hard copy journals.

The per-article cost at journals such as Nature, which have even lower acceptance rates and more extensive editorial production value, is probably far higher than these values. The per-article amount charged for publication in PLoS, currently $1,500 per article, would not cover the actual costs of publication of top-tier journals. Similarly low fees are being charged by some journals who give the option of making single articles Open Access (e.g., the Company of Biologists' journals Development, Journal of Cell Science and The Journal of Experimental Biology). However, these journals can only make their Open Access fees so low because they are still receiving subscription income for the journal as a whole -- a process that some would consider 'double-dipping'.

Should we simply do away with selective journals? We think not. Selective journals prioritize and streamline information for busy readers, and provide a hierarchy-admittedly imperfect-for appointments, promotions and grant review. Even as we love to hate them, selective journals provide an invaluable service in communicating what is going on in science.

As a not-for-profit publication, the JCB has tried to lead the way in responsible publishing that best serves the cell biology community. The decision to release our content for free after 6 months has not affected our overall revenues. We believe this model would also be perfectly viable for the for-profit, top-tier journals that currently have little or no free content. To do so, however, commercial journal publishers would have to accept the principle that the scientific archive belongs to those who produced and paid for it, and not to some multinational corporation. As we, the scientific community, provide them with their content, their quality control department, their customers, and customers for their advertisers, we have a right to expect at least this level of consideration.

In an ideal world, all archival journals would switch to Open Access, and researchers would send more of their best work only to the selective journals that make their content free after no longer than a brief delay. If the scientific community decided that they wanted to extend Open Access even to selective journals, the first step would be for all funding agencies to commit significant amounts of money to pay for the actual publishing costs-approximately $8,000 per paper in the case of JCB -- with the condition that this money could not be spent on anything else. Although this may seem conceivable in the USA, it becomes much more difficult to imagine how to institute such an approach worldwide or with private foundations whose research funds are often limited. The approach is also inherently elitist, with only the well-funded being able to afford publication.

The scientific community must decide how it wants to spend its limited funds and how to validate and distribute the products of its research most efficiently and effectively. However, such decisions must be based on a realistic appraisal of the costs involved in producing journals of high quality and high value, not on wishful thinking. For the moment, the middle ground occupied by the selective not-for-profit journals would appear to be the most reasonable: the free release of all back content after a specified delay, and the maintenance of reasonable and flexible online license fees to universities, hospitals and research institutions. Thus, the overwhelming majority of scientists and students who are positioned to engage in research, and who have the greatest need for immediate access, will get what they need. And everyone else will get it shortly thereafter.

Ira Mellman

Editor-in-Chief, The Journal of Cell Biology
http://www.jcb.org


  1. http://www.jcb.org/subscriptions/cost.shtml
  2. See http://www.rockefeller.edu/rupress/freeaccess.html
  3. The Health InterNetwork Access to Research Initiative
  4. http://www.rockefeller.edu/rupress/disconline.html
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