June 28, 2004

Proceedings of 1st Annual BuggyWhip Conference

Not very much to do with FC, except perhaps a belated message to the conference of the same name, but the NYT has published a pre-mortem on the dying Journals trade [1]. Of course, long predicted (I forget when), it should come as no surprise to anyone with an email address that expensive, published, peer-reviewed journals of academic papers are going the way of the buggy whip.

[1] http://www.nytimes.com/2004/06/26/books/26PUB.html
The New York Times June 26, 2004
A Quiet Revolt Puts Costly Journals on Web


When Dr. Miguel Nicolelis, a neurobiologist at Duke University, decided to release a groundbreaking study in an upstart online journal, his colleagues were flabbergasted. The research, demonstrating how brain implants enabled monkeys to operate a robotic arm, was a shoo-in for acceptance in premier journals like Nature or Science.

"Usually you want to publish your best work in well-established journals to have the widest possible penetration," Dr. Nicolelis said. "My idea was the opposite. We need to open up the dissemination of scientific results." The journal Dr. Nicolelis chose - PLoS Biology, a publication of the Public Library of Science - aims to do just that by putting peer-reviewed scientific papers online free, at the Web site www.plosbiology.org.

The high subscription cost of prestigious peer-reviewed journals has been a running sore point with scholars, whose tenure and prominence depend on publishing in them. But since the Public Library of Science, which was started by a group of prominent scientists, began publishing last year, this new model has been gaining attention and currency within academia.

More than money and success is at stake. Free and widespread distribution of new research has the potential to redefine the way scientific and intellectual developments are recorded, circulated and preserved for years to come.

"Society pays for science," said Dr. Nicolelis, whose article in the October issue of PLoS got worldwide attention. "We have the technology, we have the expertise. Why is it that the only thing that has remained the same for 50 years is the way we publish our results? The whole system needs overhaul."

At the big-sticker end are publications like The Journal of Comparative Neurology, for which a one-year institutional subscription has a list price of $17,995. Access to Brain Research goes for $21,269, around the price of a Toyota Camry XLE.

According to the Association of Research Libraries, journal prices went up 215 percent from 1986 to 2003, while the consumer price index rose 63 percent.

Though the highest-priced journals are in the sciences, libraries have had to offset those price increases by buying fewer books, often in other disciplines like literature and the humanities, association officials and librarians at the University of California said.

For those plotting end runs around for-profit publishers, a prime target is the Amsterdam-based Elsevier, which publishes some 1,800 journals in science, medicine and technology, including Brain Research.

"Elsevier doesn't write a single article," said Dr. Lawrence H. Pitts, a neurosurgeon at the University of California at San Francisco and chairman of the faculty senate of the 10-campus system. "Faculty write the articles for them, faculty review the articles for them and faculty mostly edit the journals for them, and then we get to buy the journals back from a company that makes a very large profit."

Similar sentiments motivated the editors and entire editorial board, 27 people in all, of Elsevier's Journal of Algorithms to defect en masse recently to start a nonprofit competitor, ACM - Transactions on Algorithms - said David S. Johnson, one of the editors.

Elsevier's managing director, John Regazzi, says the problem is not Elsevier's prices, but tight university budgets that can't meet the increasing volume of research worthy of publication. "Very few of our customers pay list price across all of their collections," he said. "If you look at the full cost of what an institution pays and you look at the number of downloads by users of the system, you're basically looking at $2 to $3 articles. We have a wide range of options for how universities can decide to subscribe." The company's pretax profit for the last three years has been between 30 and 34 percent, Mr. Regazzi said.

But more and more academics are viewing traditional publishers as obstacles to wide dissemination of studies paid for by public monies. Several open access alternatives are being hotly debated in academic online discussion groups and in the mainstream science press. The criticism even extends to some nonprofit publications, like the journal Science, which nearly tripled prices for its largest subscribers over the last two years.

Late last year, two scientists at the University of California at San Francisco called for a global boycott by authors and editors of six molecular biology journals published by Elsevier. They timed the campaign to coincide with the moment that the the University of California system was renegotiating its contract with the company.

"The mission and mandate of scientific publishing is to provide a formal record of scientific discovery, not to make publishing companies rich or editors famous," said one of the organizers, Keith R. Yamamoto, a prominent microbiologist and the vice dean for research.

Since University of California professors write, vet and edit a significant portion of Elsevier's wares, a deal was struck. The public university system reduced its bulk cost for online and print access to about 1,200 journals from $10.3 million last year to just $7.7 million annually for the next five years, according to published reports confirmed by Daniel Greenstein, the librarian of the university system. Other prestigious, but smaller universities are pursuing a different strategy.

"We have been cutting Elsevier journals and other for-profit journals as their prices have risen higher than inflation," said Michael Keller, the university librarian at Stanford. "The result is a fairly limited list - 400 Elsevier subscriptions."

PLoS became a publisher last year following a failed campaign to persuade journals to open up articles within six months of publication, said Michael B. Eisen, a computational biologist at Berkeley. Mr. Eisen is a co-founder of PLoS, with the biologist Dr. Patrick O. Brown of Stanford and Dr. Harold E. Varmus, a Nobel laureate who is chief executive of Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center in New York and former director of the National Institutes of Health.

The editors of PLoS follow normal peer review procedures. For revenue, they rely on author fees of up to $1,500 per article (typically drawn from research monies), voluntary university memberships, and grants. Although these voluntary university memberships can run into the thousands, Mr. Eisen said, the advantage is unlimited public access to priceless intellectual heritage.

But Mr. Keller of the Stanford libraries, who produces the online versions of Science and about 360 other nonprofit journals through Stanford's HighWire Press, argues that the voluntary memberships are just subscriptions in disguise.

Dr. Nicolelis's appearance in PloS Biology's debut issue helped vindicate this new model. PLoS has since attracted papers from leading lights in science like Dr. Robert Sapolsky, a Stanford researcher and a winner of a MacArthur "genius" award. Wired magazine also favored the founders with an award in April for "cracking the spine of the science cartel."

Traditional publishers hint that despite their new cachet, open access publications aren't sustainable in the long run. PLoS Biology and the new PLoS Medicine, due out this fall, are heavily subsidized by grants.

Dr. Alan I. Leshner, chief executive of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, says his publication, Science, already coping with the loss of print subscribers and advertisers, would have to charge authors $10,000 an article to survive in the open access mode. He also noted that revenues from Science - which was started by Thomas Edison - support some of association's programs, including one to provide free access to scientists in the developing world.

"I agree with the motivation," Dr. Leshner said, but added, "We just can't throw away a business model developed by Thomas Edison in 1880 based on `Trust me, it will work.' "

But to others, old models are precisely the problem. "Surely the combination of uncertainty and hope associated with this unproved model is vastly superior to the certainty and hopelessness that surrounds the current and failed commercial one," Mr. Greenstein of the University of California system wrote as part of a running debate about open access publishing on nature.com.

The pressure is beginning to have an effect. More publishers have begun opening their archives 6 to 12 months after publication. Molecular Biology of the Cell, published by the American Society for Cell Biology, now opens up its archives after two months, and as its editor-in-chief, Mr. Yamamoto hopes to convert the journal to open access soon. Even Elsevier made a recent concession to university libraries that are moving into digital publishing and archiving, offering blanket permission for authors to post their journal articles on their own institutions' Web sites.

"We're watching open access very carefully," Mr. Regazzi said. "We're trying to learn from it."

Posted by iang at June 28, 2004 05:38 PM | TrackBack