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A professional society's take on access to the scientific literature

The Journal of Biological Chemistry (JBC), the flagship journal of the American Society for Biochemistry and Molecular Biology (ASBMB), will celebrate its centennial in 2005. The JBC predated the ASBMB by one year. This is notable in that a professional scientific society grew out of the need for a discipline-oriented scientific publication. The expertise represented by a discipline is a very important consideration in the establishment and/or maintenance of the scientific literature.

The JBC has been a premier scientific publication with a prestigious scientific following. It is known for the high quality of its peer-reviewed publications of fundamental advances in biochemistry and molecular biology. The ASBMB is now an international organization with over 12,000 members and approximately half of the JBC's published authors are from foreign countries.

This growing international perspective has redefined the missions of the Society and its journals, which include ASBMB Today, the monthly magazine of the society, a newly established journal Molecular and Cellular Proteomics (MCP), the newly acquired Journal of Lipid Research (JLR); and the education journal Biochemistry and Molecular Biology Education (BAMBED), which ASBMB publishes in collaboration with the International Union of Biochemistry and Molecular Biology. ASBMB is responsible financially for the success or failure of BAMBED, which has been undertaken as a service to the community of teachers and students of the discipline throughout the world.

The concept of publishing by scientific societies has been a long-standing one, beginning in the late 1800s for the biological sciences, to meet the obvious need of an area of scientific expertise with unique knowledge and skills to disseminate information to those who share an interest in the results of scientific inquiry and to promote further research in the specific area. It is important to maintain the depth of expertise represented by these learned societies for true peer review of science within the respective disciplines.

ASBMB has been highly innovative in the publishing arena. It was the first biomedical journal to be available electronically - in 1995. This resulted from an alliance between the JBC and HighWire Press that arose out of conversations among Robert Simoni (deputy editor of the JBC), Michael Keller and John Sack, all of Stanford University. ASBMB took on the financial risk of success or failure. Scientists and societies rapidly saw the potential for new forms and features of scientific communication, and Science and Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences USA soon joined JBC online.

In 2001, JBC introduced Papers in Press (PIPs), which makes manuscripts available online the day they are accepted for publication, and permits free access to JBC papers to anyone. PIPs remain online even after the final edited and printed version of the manuscript appears, which takes around 8 weeks. The original date of publication of a manuscript is when it appears as a PIP, and PIPs remain on-line even after the editorial process is completed and the final form is published. Thus, the content of JBC publications is freely available online to everyone, and meets the criteria of a truly 'open access' journal.

More recently, JBC has provided free, on-line, full text searchable access to every published article since its inception in 1905. The JLR now also provides free, on-line access to every published article since its founding in 1959. Many other journals are now following suit but only a few have succeeded in achieving the goal of making their entire contents available in such a form. This activity was undertaken with the view of providing a vital service to the biological sciences community but it was not done without considerable thought and concern about its financial implications. The cost of this process was in excess of $700,000. The financial stability of the ASBMB and our business model for publishing has allowed our non-profit organization to take on such expenses, to serve our readers, authors and science. Our expenses are paid by a combination of sources, primarily by page charges to authors and subscriptions to individuals and libraries. In a recent survey of over a 1,000 JBC authors, over 80% preferred this mode of covering expenses to other models, such as authors or institutions paying all the costs.

In the end, the open access, cost structure and the quality of the JBC peer-review system, have been appreciated by our readers, authors, libraries and scientific institutions. Submissions to the Journal continue to increase, as do citations. These capabilities of JBC are now available for other journals of ASBMB as they have become incorporated into the publication network. It is important to note that societies, such as ASBMB, have been providing these innovations and that a measure of competition in continuing to provide such in the market place is vital to the success of the industry.

In order to handle the large volume of manuscripts that the fields of biochemistry and molecular biology encompass, it has been necessary to maintain a sizeable panel of associate editors (21) with editorial offices that handle approximately 600 manuscripts each per year. The editorial board consists of over 600 members to cover the various areas of expertise needed for peer review of the variety of manuscripts. These individuals each handle between 20-60 manuscripts per year to produce more than 50,000 printed manuscript pages in the JBC. In organizing a journal of any type, it is important that the reviewing board be willing and qualified to review. In addition, there are approximately 16 full-time staff in the Society office that support the ASBMB publication mission.

To quote Declan Butler, editor of this Nature Web Focus series, 'the core functions of publishing at its best share a commitment to impose intellectual rigour and high editorial standards on an exponentially increasing body of knowledge. As the flood of information grows, more and not less human editorial skill will be needed to focus and make sense of it' (our emphasis). We assert that this is one of the prime responsibilities of all publishers, whether for-profit or not-for-profit. The incentives to serve as an editor include the prestige of Editorial Board membership because, in the case of society-based publications, there is no remuneration for such service. Therefore, the major costs are to pay for the actual maintenance of servers, the Associate Editor offices (secretarial, computer and telephone services), hands-on training sessions for online reviewing, and editorial and print costs.

The subject of editorial independence cannot be ignored. Depending upon the business model, unless large submission charges are levied, there may be a tendency to lower the standards of review to permit more manuscripts to be published. There is risk, for example, in an author-pays-all-costs publication model that standards could be influenced by the acceptance rate of manuscripts.

This is not the case with society-based, not-for-profit publishers, particularly if the business model does not rely solely on page charges to authors. The maintenance of high standards is, indeed, the creed for these publishers, since there is pride in knowing that publishing in their journals is held in high regard. The major safeguard is the selection of editors with the appropriate expertise and the knowledge that one's peers are overseeing the standards of the publication.

There are many challenges remaining in the publishing industry. One of these is the archiving of digital information in a safe, permanent and easily retrievable medium. There have been many attempts to address this problem but none has surfaced as the satisfactory answer. It would seem that all publishers should be making efforts to achieve an effective archiving system and that much of the energy being expended by various factions in the present debate would be better spent in answering this need.

It is difficult to estimate how much archiving will cost because we do not yet know the modality that will be used ultimately. Most agree that there probably should be multiple sites for archiving, and that the systems must be updated and corrected continually. There is probably no single solution and innovations of various types should be pursued and implemented. Regardless of which publishing model one espouses, the fact that the industry is moving toward predominantly digital publication will necessitate a viable and redundant archiving system.

As any believer in the free enterprise system would espouse, it is better to allow and, indeed, to encourage competition among various modes of publication. Societies, for the most part, believe that their discipline-based journals offer a high standard of review and great depth and breadth of scrutiny due to the expertise represented by the society members or by those chosen to serve on their respective editorial boards, whether members or not.

ASBMB welcomes the involvement of all publishers in making the scientific literature more openly accessible to all interested readers and challenges those who would say otherwise to prove that such competition is not a healthy incentive to new innovations in submission, review and publication. The burden of such progress rests upon all, and the ASBMB submits that it has been a prime contributor to this progress and intends to remain so.

Bettie Sue Masters The University of Texas Health Science Center at San Antonio, USA

Judith S. Bond College of Medicine, The Pennsylvania State University, USA


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