Observations On the Contrary

Springtime for open access in academia

BMJ 2012; 344 doi: http://dx.doi.org/10.1136/bmj.e2937 (Published 25 April 2012) Cite this as: BMJ 2012;344:e2937
  1. Tony Delamothe, deputy editor, BMJ
  1. tdelamothe{at}bmj.com

Will history label this the “academic spring”?

The digital revolution is far from over and continues to inflict heavy casualties. Kodak, founded in 1889 and synonymous with amateur photography ever since, filed for bankruptcy in January. The company saw the digital revolution coming, says the Financial Times (3 Apr), but didn’t move fast enough.

Another household name, Encyclopaedia Britannica (first volume 1768), has announced that it is moving out of print to focus on its online version. Is this merely a prelude, one wonders, to its being driven out of business altogether by its free competitor, Wikipedia (launched 2001)?

If so, newspapers may be joining Kodak and the encyclopaedia in the knacker’s yard. The newspaper industry has this year been judged the fastest shrinking industry in the United States, and each month its British counterpart announces further retrenchment. At the heart of the problem is a failure to find financially sustainable online business models. There are many ways of getting it wrong: when the Times (1785) introduced a paywall in July 2010 visitor numbers fell off a cliff and have not recovered since (see www.alexa.com/siteinfo/timesonline.co.uk). For the record, the world’s most visited news website is currently the free Huffington Post (2005).

Academic publishing hasn’t been spared digital disruption, but the big publishers remain in rude good health. Last year the biggest, Elsevier, made £768m ($1.2bn) on revenues of £2.1bn (Economist, 14 April 2012). This year, however, several clouds have appeared on the horizon.

The first started with a mathematician’s unhappiness over Elsevier’s prices and publishing policies, which academics and librarians have been whingeing about for years. Neil Gowers blogged on 21 January that he was boycotting Elsevier (gowers.wordpress.com), which inspired a website where other researchers could pledge to do the same (thecostofknowledge.com). Within three months more than 10 000 have publicly stated that they will no longer submit manuscripts to Elsevier journals, referee for them, or serve on their editorial boards. Within a month of the boycott Elsevier had withdrawn its support of the Research Works Act, one of the activists’ grievances. This US act would have reversed the requirement that all articles arising from government financed research should be made freely available from the National Library of Medicine’s website, PubMed Central (BMJ 2012;344:e1469, doi:10.1136/bmj.e1469).

Elsevier has denied any connection between the two, but that hasn’t stopped people bandying around the term “academic spring.” The comparison with the Arab spring is not so fanciful: last year’s uprisings began with individuals expressing longstanding grievances, which were then amplified massively in the echo chamber of social media.

One of the best places to find out what’s really going on is the US National Academy of Sciences e-journal summits, which take place when the organisers think there’s been enough “new stuff” to warrant an attempt at synthesis. Cheekily, one of its sessions last month was entitled “Publisher Bypass,” but the meatiest session was devoted to the “rise of the multidisciplinary open access journal.”

The publisher Peter Binfield discussed what’s been happening with PLoS One, a peer reviewed, open access, online publication that reports primary research from all scientific disciplines. Its publication costs are covered by author charges of $1350 (£840; €1030) a paper, so readers pay nothing. Submissions to PLoS One have been roughly doubling each year—from 2497 in 2007 to 25 867 last year—and in 2011 PLoS One published almost 14 000 articles. Binfield has identified about 15 recent launches that aim to replicate PLoS One’s model, and he envisages the future as a thousand “top tier” (in their respective fields) journals, with 100 open access “megajournals” publishing all other content.

Also discussed in this session was eLife, the open access journal for biomedical and life sciences research, which is backed by the Wellcome Trust, the Howard Hughes Medical Institute, and the Max Planck Society. This latest initiative comes after nearly a decade’s activism for open access by these three organisations. The new journal will be edited by scientists, for scientists; and initially there will be no author charges. In its sights are not the PloS Ones of this world but the profit making Nature, Science, and Cell.

Earlier this month the coincidence of the Elsevier boycott and the impending launch of eLife provoked a run of editorials in British newspapers, wildly supportive of open access: “An open and shut case” (Guardian (www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/2012/apr/11/academic-journals-access-wellcome-trust)); “A Wellcome blast of competition” (Financial Times); “Open sesame” (Economist (www.economist.com/node/21552574)).

The BMJ “got” open access some time ago: all its research articles have been freely available from bmj.com since we first posted full text articles on the web in 1998. And since 2001 our research articles have been available from PubMed Central. Do recent events suggest that we’re heading for a world where open access publication of research results is the new norm?

We’ll know that’s the case when the UK government and Research Councils UK decide to follow the US lead and make it mandatory for results of all the research they fund to be made freely available. They’ve been teetering on the brink of making this decision for years, apparently held back by concerns for the profits of UK publishers. But they should know that the status quo generates costs as well as profits: British universities spend around £200m a year on subscriptions to electronic databases and journals—a massive 10% of their block grants from government (Guardian (www.guardian.co.uk/science/2012/apr/09/wellcome-trust-academic-spring)).

Writing approvingly of PubMed Central in the first BMJ of the new millennium, Richard Smith and I concluded: “When economic forces and the interests of the scientific community converge, publisher opposition may not succeed” (BMJ 2001;322:1, doi:10.1136/bmj.322.7277.1). Neither the economic forces nor the interests of the scientific community have changed since then, but the digital revolution has thrown up cheap, new ways for authors and readers to reach each other. Unless traditional publishers can respond to the mounting pressures from above and below, Kodak and the Encyclopaedia Britannica may soon have some new friends.


Cite this as: BMJ 2012;344:e2937


  • Competing interest: TD is a signatory of the Bethesda Statement on Open Access Publishing (http://dash.harvard.edu/handle/1/4725199). His employer, BMJ Group, sells traditional subscriptions to its journals but also allows “open access” to research articles that have been paid for by author charges.

  • bmj.com News: US bill proposes speeding up free online access to federally funded research (BMJ 2012;344:e2895, doi:10.1136/bmj.e2895)