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Open Access ignoring lessons of dot-com bubble

In his recent contribution to this focus, Jan Velterop, Publisher of the UK-based Open-Access publisher BioMed Central (BMC), asserts that criticism of Open Access publishing as economically unsustainable is just wishful thinking on the part of traditional publishers1. He states that any business that can deliver what customers need or want, at a price that they are willing to pay, is sustainable.

But this is simply incorrect. Companies are sustainable in the long run only if they create economic value, and generating revenues is not evidence of value creation. If I set up a business selling �1 coins for 99p, it could easily generate revenue. How long I could afford to stay in business is another matter entirely.

Even with happy, willing customers, the Open Access scientific publishing model is still unproven. How much more so now that the prospect of unwilling customers has appeared on the horizon? In their recent submissions to the UK Parliamentary Science and Technology Committee, BMC and the Public Library of Science (PLoS) recommended making Open Access publishing mandatory for research supported by public funds, as well as setting aside a portion of research funding for the payment of Open Access publication fees2,3.

Given that Open Access advocates have failed to persuade traditional journal publishers to adopt their model, I think that the publishers who control the prestigious journals are unlikely to overhaul their current practices if these new rules were to be implemented. There is therefore a risk that some international journals would respond by simply not publishing public sector UK research. The majority, however, would probably introduce an exception to their normal practices to allow UK-funded research to be simultaneously published in their traditional journal and a third party Open Access archive. Indeed, another contribution to this focus has proposed 'open access by the paper'4. This is an interesting idea that enables the author to choose to publish in an Open Access manner. But BMC/PLoS proposals involve coercing authors into Open Access publishing. Their recommendations, far from helping the Open Access 'movement', could kill it off in its infancy.

Consider that "Authors have little incentive to submit their work to new open access journals that have neither an impact factor nor an established reputation" (PLoS' words3, not mine). Moreover, consider that entrepreneurs will be pleased to learn that the UK government would, with the stroke of a pen, be creating a new market by mandating that hundreds of thousands of pounds be spent on Open Access publishing. But, given that the first generation of Open Access publishers has yet to even reach break-even point, the new publishers will be tempted to take short cuts.

The result, I predict, would be the emergence of multiple 'low-cost, no-frills' Open Access service providers, trying to attract customers solely on the basis of price. BioMed Central thinks it can make a 10-15% profit margin and provide a high level of service with an average publication fee of around $550. The second generation of dot-coms may think they can get the same result by providing a low level of service at $50. The result? A 'race to the bottom' based on destructive price competition that kills off the promised innovative new Open Access linking and data sharing systems, because there is no one willing or able to pay for them.

Why would authors choose the no-frills provider as their open access publisher? Because, just like a low cost airline, it gets them where they want to go. In the scenario where publishers allow open access by the paper, and authors are mandated to cooperate with the open access "movement" without being true believers in the open access concept, these new rules are just procedural matters to be skirted as cheaply as possible to enable what the author thinks of as "real" version of the paper: the one published in the prestigious journal.

Of course, it is possible that a two-tier system will emerge, with no-frills publishing for the archival journals and better quality being maintained by a smaller number of high-tier journals. But this scenario depends upon the Open Access publishers convincing the academic authors to 'vote with their papers', that is to choose the superior option, even though it will cost them more.

Before that will happen, a large proportion of the academic author community must be convinced that Open Access publishing offers concrete benefits. I am most familiar with the non-biomedical fields of science. And all the evidence I see indicates that the Open Access model offers minimal benefits for academic authors.

For example, consider the Internet Journal of Nitride Semiconductor Research, which is published by the Materials Research Society5. It has been in existence since 1996-an aeon in Internet years, and long enough to have developed an impact factor. It is run by a large society, it covers a very popular, well-funded field of research, and its publication fees are very low (<$400). However, it attracts little interest, and publishes less than one paper a month. Why? Presumably because the institutional authors in the field are satisfied with the traditional publishing options they have available to them.

The prestige gap between established journals and new ventures is a serious problem for Open Access publishers in the academic market. Therefore BMC and PLoS also have a third recommendation: employers and funding bodies should be barred from considering impact factor when evaluating candidates. Instead, papers should be judged on their 'intrinsic merits'.

This is a laudable sentiment, but pretty unworkable in the real world. A thorough examination of a paper can easily take two hours. Imagine that you have been asked to rank ten candidates, and each has published ten papers. Evaluating the quality of their work on the basis of 'intrinsic merit' would take 200 hours - and you would probably be expected to do it in your 'spare time'. Impact factor may be a flawed metric, but it will continue to be used until someone develops a better one.

In March 2001, Professor Michael E. Porter of the Harvard Business School published the obituary for the dot-com bubble in his paper 'Strategy and the Internet'6. He observed that many companies were led into bad decision making by the mistaken belief that 'the Internet changes everything'. He also noted, 'to generate revenues, reduce expenses, or simply do something useful by deploying Internet technology is not sufficient evidence that value has been created.'

Open Access advocates also shows signs of over-reliance on the Internet-changes-everything theory. The economic viability of the model is still not proven-Velterop's article simply begs the question. They could easily be ushering in a dot-com-style cycle of wealth destruction that will leave them-and dozens of learned societies-constantly scratching for funds, with nothing left over for funding innovation. Meanwhile, the benefits that are on offer to 'science and society' remain very fuzzy in both kind and quantity.

Open Access advocates believe that they have found the formula for a profound change in the scientific publishing landscape. But isn't it more likely that Open Access will simply become a publishing subspecialty?

In taking on the establishment, BMC, PLoS and others have chosen to fight an uphill battle. Before they resort to government intervention to support their cause, they should show more evidence of the value for science and society that they claim to be offering, and a solid economic case for how they intend to get there.

Marie Meyer
Managing Director
Vertilog, an open-access publisher specializing in (privately-funded) applied engineering


  1. Jan Velterop, 'The myth of "unsustainable" Open Access journals', Nature Web Focus, Access to the literature: the debate continues, 1 April, 2004,
  2. BioMed Central, submission to the House of Commons Science and Technology Committee Inquiry into Scientific Publications, 6 February 2004,
  3. Public Library of Science, submission to the House of Commons Science and Technology Committee Inquiry into Scientific Publications,
  4. Thomas J. Walker, 'Open access by the article: an idea whose time has come?', Nature Web Focus, Access to the literature: the debate continues, 15 April, 2004
  5. http://nsr.mij.mrs.org/
  6. Michael E. Porter 'Strategy and the Internet', Harvard Business Review, March 2001, [available as PDF download or from Amazon.com]
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