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Open access and not-for-profit publishers

It is no accident that much experimentation with the Open Access journals model, where costs are covered by payments made on behalf of the author rather than on behalf of the reader, is being carried out by learned societies and other not-for-profit publishers. Their charitable status — and the reason they are therefore exempt from paying taxes — stems from their mission to develop and support their discipline, through research, dissemination and public education2. Clearly, providing free access to research papers, and recovering the costs in some other way, would be an excellent means to achieve these objectives.

Many such publishers are also cautious, however, and very few have gone the whole hog of converting an existing journal at a stroke to completely open access. More typically, they are experimenting with delayed open access, as advocated by Shulenburger3 — and the original Public Library of Science [PLoS] proposal4), and most recently in the DC principles. Smaller learned societies are also by far the most likely to make their journals freely available after a short period5. Others are experimenting with hybrid models. The Company of Biologists6 and the American Physiological Society7 for example, offer all authors the option of paying for their own article to be made freely accessible. Oxford University Press is testing another route: making specific issues of a journal, in this case Nucleic Acids Research, open access8.

The reason for their caution is simple. While commercial publishers pay part of their profits to the tax man, and redistribute some to the business's owners or shareholders, not-for-profit publishers are obliged by their charitable status to apply their profits — politely called 'surpluses' — to the objectives of the organization. ALPSP is currently carrying out, with Blackwell Publishing, a survey of what learned societies uses their publishing surpluses for. What is emerging is that where they do make a surplus — and not all do — it is typically invested in such activities as promoting public education, subsiding conference fees or membership subscriptions, and providing research grants and bursaries. If, as seems likely, the author-end cost-recovery model were further to reduce surpluses — which are already modest compared with some commercial publishers' profits — these other services would inevitably suffer, and it is arguable that both science and society would be the poorer.

Some people argue that it is not right that library budgets should pay for societies' other activities. But it is perhaps fair to ask where those library budgets come from: ultimately, they come from the taxpayer, meaning, primarily, business. If, on the other hand, these society services were no longer subsidized, who would have to pay? In many cases, it would be the individual scientist — paying more for society membership, more on conference fees and travel. The alternative of more direct subsidy from taxpayers' money, whether to the societies themselves or to the individual scientists, might have considerable drawbacks in terms of independence and academic freedom.

The undoubted enthusiasm of not-for-profit publishers for the benefits of open access is therefore tempered by important questions about its financial impact. While applauding those who are willing to experiment, there are many more who cannot take that risk, and who are therefore eagerly awaiting hard data on the financial and other effects of this alternative model. ALPSP is therefore commissioning a major study to analyse as much as possible of the data that is emerging from the wide range of open access journal experiments; the publication of our findings in early 2005 will, we hope, help publishers of all types to make rational and informed decisions about modifying their business model.

Sally Morris
Chief Executive, Association of Learned and Professional Society Publishers (ALPSP)1
chief-exec@alpsp.org


  1. ALPSP (http://www.alpsp.org) is the international trade association for not-for-profit publishers; it currently has around 280 members in 30 countries.

  2. For example, the mission of the Royal Society of Chemistry is 'to foster and encourage the growth and application of [chemical] science by the dissemination of chemical knowledge' (see http://www.rsc.org/members/aboutus2.htm#charter); that of the British Ecological Society is 'to advance and support the science of ecology and publicise the outcome of research, in order to advance knowledge, education and their application' (see http://www.britishecologicalsociety.org/articles/about/thebes/); and that of the Society for Endocrinology is 'the advancement of public education in endocrinology' (see http://www.endocrinology.org/sfe/memart.pdf).

  3. Shulenburger, D. Moving with dispatch to resolve the scholarly communication crisis: from here to NEAR. In ARL Proceedings133, Confronting the challenges of the digital era, ARL, Washington, D.C. See http://www.arl.org/arl/proceedings/133/shulenburger.html (1998).

  4. The original website is no longer available — see archived pages at http://web.archive.org/web/20010925010118/http://publiclibraryofscience.org/

  5. See Scholarly Publishing Practice. Cox, J. & Cox, L. ALPSP. See http://www.alpsp.org/news/sppsummary0603.pdf (2003).

  6. See http://www.biologists.com/openaccess.html

  7. See http://www.the-aps.org/publications/pg/interest.htm

  8. See http://www3.oup.co.uk/nar/special/14/default.html
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