All journals from the BMJ Publishing Group should be free online

BMJ 2000; 320 doi: http://dx.doi.org/10.1136/bmj.320.7228.188 (Published 15 January 2000) Cite this as: BMJ 2000;320:188
  1. A E Dobbin, general practitioner
  1. Brunton Place Surgery, Edinburgh EH7 5EG

    EDITOR—During last October I received my BMJ in a wrapper that proudly proclaimed that many journals published by the BMJ Publishing Group, including Heart, Gut, Thorax, and JMG, were now online. I thought this a useful innovation and looked forward to getting access to them. I am a full time, extremely busy general practitioner—as we all are—and access to any kind of information is therefore extremely useful. There had been a lot of interest in a recent article in Thorax about diet and obstructive airways disease. Naturally, I wanted to look at it, and I assumed that I would be able to gain access to it through the BMJ's website or Medline.

    After spending a frustrating 25 minutes seeking access I had to give up. I managed to get an article from a newspaper online about the article. I telephoned the helpline advertised on the outside cover of the BMJ and was told that this service was available only to people who subscribe to the journals, which I found astonishing. This is unnecessary protectionism.

    Many prestigious journals are available online that rely on money from subscriptions to keep them going. You can access the New Scientist's site and read any article from the journal for any week that you wish, and indexing of back copies over the past two years is also excellent. You do not need to buy New Scientist to do this. The publishers realise that because they produce a good magazine people will not stop buying it to read it online. Everyone knows that it is extremely tiring and difficult to read a magazine online.

    I do not believe that the journals published by the BMJ Publishing Group would lose any subscriptions by becoming freely available online to anybody who subscribes to the BMJ. Am I as a general practitioner really expected to subscribe to 10 journals, all of which could have highly relevant and interesting information that I might need to access, when I am already a member of the BMA and support the BMJ Publishing Group through my subscriptions? I would be grateful if this situation could be remedied as soon as possible. You should need only to enter your Medline password and identification to gain access to these journals, and I am sure every member of the BMA would agree about this.

    Editor's reply

    I am pleased that we are able to provide free access to the BMJ's website at the moment, and I hope very much that we will be able to keep it that way. But it is not certain that we will be able to do so. Indeed, nothing is certain about the electronic future of journals. It is not even certain that many of them have a future.

    Although the eBMJ is available free to everybody, we have not been able to follow this model with our specialist journals. They are free to those who receive paper copies (including members of societies with which we co-own some of the journals), but we cannot at the moment make them free to everybody. We do plan, however, to experiment with “paying per view,” which means that people like Dr Dobbin would be able to get access to a particular article very cheaply—probably at less cost than getting an article from a library.

    We are in an experimental phase in the BMJ Publishing Group, and the specialist journals have a completely different source of income from the BMJ. Most of their income comes from subscriptions, making them much more vulnerable than the BMJ to the cancellation of subscriptions. Dr Dobbin is right that people do not want to read onscreen, and my hypothesis (no more than that) is that if people read more than 15% of a publication then they may want a paper copy. If I'm right, a publication such as New Scientist(and probably the BMJ) has little to fear, but it may be different for journals that are comprised largely of research articles.

    Dr Dobbin, like every BMA member I have ever met, imagines that some, perhaps even much, of his subscription goes on the BMJ. In fact, none of it does. The journal has income from classified and display advertising and from subscriptions from non-members. These underwrite the cost of the BMJ, and the whole publishing group manages in addition to put around £2m a year into the BMA's reserves. The BMA wants us to carry on doing that, which is one of the reasons why we cannot make all journals free to everybody.