Research

Importance of free access to research articles on decision to submit to the BMJ: survey of authors

BMJ 2006; 332 doi: http://dx.doi.org/10.1136/bmj.38705.490961.55 (Published 16 February 2006) Cite this as: BMJ 2006;332:394
  1. Sara Schroter, senior researcher (sschroter{at}bmj.com)1
  1. 1 BMJ, London WC1H 9JR
  • Accepted 8 October 2005

Abstract

Objectives To determine whether free access to research articles on bmj.com is an important factor in authors' decisions on whether to submit to the BMJ, whether the introduction of access controls to part of the BMJ's content has influenced authors' perceptions of the journal, and whether the introduction of further access controls would influence authors' perceptions.

Design Cross sectional electronic survey.

Participants Authors of research articles published in the BMJ.

Results 211/415 (51%) eligible authors responded. Three quarters (159/211) said the fact that all readers would have free access to their paper on bmj.com was very important or important to their decision to submit to the BMJ. Over half (111/211) said closure of free access to research articles would make them slightly less likely to submit research articles to the BMJ in the future, 14% (29/211) said they would be much less likely to submit, and 34% (71/211) said it would not influence their decision. Authors were equally divided in their opinion as to whether the closure of access to parts of the journal since January 2005 had affected their view of the BMJ; 40% (84/211) said it had, 38% (80/211) said it had not. In contrast, 67% (141/211) said their view of the BMJ would change if it closed access to research articles. Authors' comments largely focused on disappointment with such a regressive step in the era of open access publishing, loss of a distinctive feature of the BMJ, a perceived reduction in the journal's usefulness as a resource and global influence, restricted readership, less attractive to publish in, and the negative impact on the journal's image.

Conclusions Authors value free access to research articles and consider this an important factor in deciding whether to submit to the BMJ. Closing access to research articles would have a negative effect on authors' perceptions of the journal and their likeliness to submit.

Introduction

The traditional publishing model based on subscriptions from readers has been heavily criticised for restricting access to important scientific information while generating large profits for publishers.1 2 Realising the importance of free unrestricted access to scientific information, the BMJ introduced an open access policy in 1998, whereby all readers could gain free access to all journal content online with no restrictions.3 Free access to content, however, comes with a financial cost to the BMJ Publishing Group through a potential loss of subscriptions. Reduced revenue from subscriptions was one of the key reasons for putting some content (including editorials and education and debate articles) behind access controls in January 2005.4 The BMJ, however, has retained free access to all original research articles on bmj.com. While free access to research articles is important to BMJ editors we do not know how much our authors value it and how they would perceive the introduction of access controls for this material.

Methods

I emailed the first author of 479 research articles (papers, primary care papers, and short reports) published in the BMJ between 1 January 2003 and 31 March 2005 an invitation from the BMJ to complete an electronic survey (see bmj.com). I excluded authors of papers who were not categorised initially on our manuscript tracking system.

Results

Sixty four email addresses were incorrect, and 51% (211/415) of the remaining authors responded. Most (75%, 159/211) said the fact that all readers would have free access to the specific paper they had published on bmj.com was very important or important to their decision to submit their paper to the BMJ (table).

Responses to survey questions (n=211)

View this table:

I asked authors whether closure of free access to research articles would influence the likelihood of their submitting research articles to the BMJ in the future. Most (53%, 111/211) said they would be slightly less likely to submit and 14% (29/211) would be much less likely to submit. A third (71/211) said this would not influence their decision.

Sample quotes showing how authors' views have been affected

How the closure of access to parts of the journal content has affected authors' views
Regressive step in the era of open access

I saw the free access part of the BMJ as a key part of its identity and role as a disseminator of information and evidence. It also contributes to its image of acting in the public good and for the betterment of public health. I was very disappointed with the decision to limit access at a time when so many other organisations are moving towards freer access. It seemed a profit driven move for an organisation that I had assumed had a more balanced view of the world

BMJ is swimming against the tide. Other journals are moving towards open access and you are going in the opposite direction. This is a real pity

When I realised that BMJ allowed the free access, I was very much impressed with BMJ's progressive view and courage in the forefront leading to free distribution of knowledge. On the other hand, if this policy is not viable for business reasons, I can totally understand.

Reduced usefulness as a resource

I think that it was really good that the journal was freely available. I know lots of people who used to use it as a resource but can't do this anymore. It is really important that papers and the views of experts—for example, in your education and debate articles and editorials—should be made widely available. Your editorials, for example, are very widely read.

Reduced global influence

Less access globally means less readership, less impact of papers, and less recognition and awareness of publications

Restricted readership

Public access, particularly to patient populations, was a strong attribute of BMJ and I am sad to see it go

Less attractive to publish in

It is no longer widely available. Less likely to be referenced over an article that was available in full text from another leading journal

Negative impact on journal's image

I wonder about the BMJ's commitment to public education. Many staff and hospitals simply cannot afford the online subscription rates that journals charge

How putting research articles behind access controls would change authors' views of the BMJ
Loss of a unique feature of the BMJ

I was proud of the BMJ for making universal free access and leading the world in this. Now it has gone back to being just another journal

I would view the BMJ as a more ordinary journal and not as the most important journal in medicine. In my opinion, the BMJ is one of the few uncorrupt journals in today's medicine, and not totally in the hands of commercial (for instance, pharmaceutical) companies. I therefore believe the journal has an extraordinary important position in medicine. The journal must be freely available to hold this position

Financial interest

I would assume that the BMJ was in financial meltdown and would not be with us for much longer

I would regard the BMJ as just one of those journals out to get money any way they can.

What is already known on this topic

BMJ editors are committed to free open access to research articles but have no data on how important this is to authors

What this study adds

Authors value free access to research articles on bmj.com and this influences their choice of where to submit articles

The introduction of access controls to part of the BMJ's content has influenced authors' perceptions of the journal

Authors were equally divided in their opinion as to whether the closure of access to parts of the journal since January 2005 had affected their view of the BMJ: 40% (84/211) said it had and 38% (80/211) said it had not. Around a fifth (47/211) were not aware that we had closed access to parts of the journal, possibly because they have institutional subscriptions allowing automatic full access. In contrast, two thirds of authors (141/211, 67%) said their view of the BMJ would change if we closed access to research articles, 20% (42/211) said it would not change their view, and 13% (28/211) were not sure.

The box gives some illustrative sample quotes of how authors' views of the BMJ have been affected since we closed access to parts of the journal and how their views would be affected if we closed access to research papers. Comments largely focused on disappointment with a regressive step in the era of open access publishing, loss of a unique feature of the BMJ “that sets you apart from most other major journals,” a perceived reduction in the journal's usefulness as a resource and global influence, restricted readership, less attractive to publish in, and the negative impact on the journal's image. None of the quotes were negative about open access. All the comments received from authors are available on bmj.com.

Discussion

Authors clearly value free access to BMJ research articles and consider this an important factor in deciding whether to submit to the journal. Closing access to research articles would have a negative effect on authors' perceptions of the journal and their likeliness to submit.

This study was limited by a low response rate (51%) and unfortunately I cannot compare responders and non-responders in terms of demographics and research experience as this type of information about individual authors is not kept. One possible reason for the low response rate was that the BMJ was simultaneously conducting another online author survey and authors may have felt overburdened. The response rate, however, is comparable with rates of other surveys with professionals (published surveys of physicians have a mean response rate of 54%).5 Responding authors may have tried to emphasise a particular message to the publishing group and may have been advocates of open access publishing in general. Regardless, the results show that the issue was important to many authors, even if all the non-responders were indifferent.

The individual comments from participants suggest that closure of access to research articles is likely to have a considerable negative impact on the image, and therefore potentially the strategic and long term financial success and viability, of the BMJ. The publishing group has agreed to keep free access to research articles for now.

Footnotes

  • Embedded Image A copy of the electronic survey and details of all responses as received are onbmj.com.

    This article was posted on bmj.com on 9 January 2006: http://bmj.com/cgi/doi/10.1136/bmj.38705.490961.55

    I thank all the authors who completed the survey.

  • Contributors SS is the sole contributor.

  • Funding BMJ Publishing Group.

  • Competing interests SS is employed by the BMJ as a researcher. She believes free access to research articles is important but did not reveal this to the participants when communicating with them.

  • Ethical approval Not required.

    Because a member of BMJ editorial staff conducted this research, assessment and peer review were carried out entirely by external advisers. No member of BMJ staff was involved in making the decision on the paper.

References

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