As the row about free access to scientific and medical literature heats up, the big question is which business model is best - author pays or subscription? DCLnews reports.
In 1543 the scientist Copernicus was in a dilemma. Should he publish his revolutionary idea that the earth was not the center of the universe and risk the inevitable backlash? Or should he keep his new found wisdom within safe circles? In the end, he decided to publish.
The modern scientist, however, does not have a choice. Published papers are the currency of science. So getting their work into a scientific journal is vital to any scientist's career. It's also vital to science itself. Researchers need to see what others in their field have found out and how they went about finding it.
Each year, some 2.5 million articles come out of the world's laboratories and many end up in scientific journals, which are subscribed to by academic libraries. There are currently 24,000 peer reviewed journals on the market. With rising costs, many libraries are finding it increasingly difficult to afford to subscribe to them all.
This is what led to the Open Access movement, which argues that scientific and medical literature should be made freely available to everyone.
The Open Access idea has now caught the ears of politicians. In Britain, early in 2004, for example, the House of Commons Science and Technology Committee looked into the issues surrounding scientific publishing.
"Some of us on the select committee knew that libraries were struggling to stay alive," says the committee's chair Dr Ian Gibson. "The increasing costs of journals meant that they had to reject some journals. We felt that the publishing companies were doing very nicely thank you - and it was time to start challenging them.""
The committee released its conclusions in July last year, and came down firmly on opening up access to scientific data. As things stand, says the report, the public purse is effectively paying three times: Once to fund the research, the second time to pay the salaries of the scientists engaged in peer review, and a third time to buy the research back from publishing companies. It's bad for scientists and bad for the public, the report concludes.
Most of the criticism of the current system comes down to cost. Leading scientific journal publishers have profit margins of 34 percent - a figure strongly condemned by the Open Access movement.
They may be wrong to do this, however. Michael Mabe, director of academic relations at Elsevier, one of the biggest publishers of scientific journals, says: "You need to be very careful when you look at margins. Apart from anything else, there are rules about how you declare margins. You have to include elements that might not be recurrent profitability in terms of the items you sell."
When giving evidence to the Science and Technology Committee, Elsevier's chief executive pointed out that when you take off taxation and goodwill factors the actual year-on-year profitability of scientific journals is 17 percent.
"That's the same level as learned society publishers' surpluses - and remember they are subsidized and they don't have to pay taxes," says Mabe.
One of the biggest threats to the established order is the Public Library of Science (PLoS), which publishes two journals - Biology and Medicine - and exists on donations from charitable foundations. Its executive director, Vivian Siegel, says her organization's mission is nothing less than to democratize science. "We think of ourselves as a combination of scientific publisher and an advocacy group to create a change that is larger than ourselves."
PLoS and other Open Access publishers, such as BioMed Central, operate an author pays, rather than a subscription, business model.
Elsevier's Michael Mabe sees this as inherently flawed. "Under the existing subscription-based model articles are only published if they reach a certain threshold criteria of quality, determined by peer review," he says. "With the author pays model, run by Open Access publishers, the temptation to include a few extra articles to get the extra money is very strong - especially at times of financial pressure. [To us] there is a significant risk that the quality of the literature would slowly decline under that type of pressure."
As it stands, there is no proof that the author pays model is sustainable. In five years of operation BioMed Central, for example, is yet to break even. What's more, there is no consensus on how much scientists should pay to publish their work. PLoS charges around $1500 per article; BioMed Central half that sum.
There is also a lack of evidence to support the Open Access argument that author pays publishing is cheaper than the current subscription model. Cornell University in the U.S. concluded in a study that Open Access might even turn out more expensive. Universities would certainly save from their library budget, but might end up paying out more for their researchers to publish their work.
Side by side
Whatever proves to be the case, many traditional science and medical publishers don't see Open Access as a threat. To them, the old and the new can live side by side.
"It's good to have competitors," says Kamran Abbasi, acting editor of the British Medical Journal (BMJ). "You might think the Open Access publishing model would threaten us. Perhaps one day it might. But at the moment they're not really competitors in that they receive a very small number of submissions, and I don't believe they provide the quality of material that we do. In the next decade or so they might emerge more strongly. But it's not something I'm losing sleep over right now."