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Journal publishing: what do authors want?

This web forum has offered a platform for some eloquent and highly principled arguments from insiders to the Open Access debate: publishers, librarians, and consultants. Their views are clearly formative and important for the future of the industry. But apart from a few vociferous exceptions, the voice that has been under-represented from the debate so far is that of authors. What do they want from the journals system, and how satisfied are they in their various roles as producers, judges and consumers of research outputs? What do they think about Open Access?

The Centre for Information Behaviour and the Evaluation of Research (ciber) has just completed an international survey1 of journal authors to try to find the answers to some of these questions. We sent e-mails to 91,500 senior authors who had published in an ISI-indexed journal over the past 18 months, inviting them to complete a web-enabled questionnaire. The study was funded by ciber with a contribution from the UK Publishers’ Association, who remained at arm’s length throughout. Our aim was to carry out what is possibly the largest and most carefully controlled survey of author’s views on scholarly communication in the digital environment that has yet been conducted. The survey yielded 3,787 fully completed questionnaires, with responses from 97 countries and from each major discipline in the sciences and social sciences.

What authors tell us they want from the journals systems reflects a view that has probably not changed much over the past four centuries. They want the imprimatur of quality and integrity that a peer-reviewed, high-impact title can offer, together with reasonable levels of publisher service. Above all, they want to narrowcast their ideas to a close community of like-minded researchers (Table 1).

Table 1 Target readerships (n=3,787)

The significance of this finding is that it places one of the journal crisis’ traditional scapegoats, the cry that there are ‘too many journals’, into its proper context. It might even be argued that there are too few titles to satisfy fully scientists’ needs. The role that journals play in helping to structure specialist academic communities is underlined by the huge amounts of largely unpaid effort that researchers put into refereeing and editing work. Around 80% of our authors had undertaken peer-review activity in the previous twelve months and many authors voiced considerable resentment at the prices charged by some commercial publishers in a context where they themselves do so much work on a largely voluntary basis. Moreover, the publishing community has not been good in articulating to academics the value-added that they bring to the system. In this climate, author charges could be the last straw for many authors. Even under the most conservative assumptions, commercial and society publishers are receiving a massive subvention from the research community in this respect. This should be an important consideration in any debate about ‘who pays’.

As readers, authors are generally happy with their access to the journals literature, pricing apart, with 61% indicating that that they can currently get hold of most or all of the titles they need. To set these findings into context, we asked authors how this compared with five years ago: The majority (77%) said that access was now ‘a lot’ or ‘a little’ easier, with only 11% saying that things were worse. It is likely that the shift towards desk-top delivery of full text and the bundling of services has done much to foster a feel good factor among authors as readers. The download statistics reported by Karen Hunter l earlier in this Nature Focus series suggest that universal-access scholarly information which is free at the point of use is nearing a reality for a privileged majority of the research community

We strongly feel that the Open Access movement has the potential to greatly improve scientists’ access to research and thus greatly accelerate the process of discovery. This will serve the greater good. We also do not think that traditional publishers will be destroyed by the change in publishing models if they adapt to the new conditions. The amount of profit to be made may shrink, but there will always be an opportunity to run successful businesses in this area.

Awareness of publishing initiatives is surprisingly low: 82% of authors claim to know ‘nothing’ or just ‘a little’ about Open Access: this is particularly surprising in the context of a self-selecting sample of authors who felt sufficiently minded to complete a questionnaire framed in terms of new developments in journal publishing. For the purposes of our survey, we used ‘Open Access’ to refer to a funding model where the costs are met by charging authors for publishing services. Having excluded those who knew ‘nothing at all’ about the topic, we asked: ‘If all journals were Open Access, what do you consider would be a reasonable payment to have your paper published in the best journal in your field?’

Table 2 Willingness to pay author charges

Globally, it seems that only 16% of authors are prepared to pay more than US$500 to have their papers published (see Table 2). These findings are broadly similar to those of another recent survey2 but we found stiffer resistance at the higher end: only 5% of our authors were prepared to pay US$1,000 or more, compared with 10% in the Cozzarelli et al. survey

There is a much variation between disciplines but it is difficult to see how the journals system as a whole can be supported by author charges, although there may be niches within which this funding model will be successful. Our data support the view that an optimistic global average estimate of authors’ willingness to pay may lie somewhere around US$400 per article. There are deep pockets of resistance to author charges in Eastern Europe (72% of authors say they will pay nothing), amongst the self-employed (66%) and women (53%).

Since authors question the value of what publishers are adding to scholarly communication, and feel they are already doing so much work themselves in preparing and reviewing for publication, it is hardly surprising that their perceptions of the costs needed to sustain the system are far lower than those of the publishers. ‘Can’t pay, won’t pay’ seems to be the general message.

Ian Rowlands, Dave Nicholas and Paul Huntingdon Centre for Information Behaviour and the Evaluation of Research, City University, London, UK

  1. See

  2. Cozzarelli, N. R., Fulton, K. R. & Sullenberger, D. M. Results of a PNAS author survey on an open access option for publication. Proc. Natl Acad. Sci. USA 101(5), 1111. See

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