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Opening Access

Publishers weigh the risks and benefits of free online journal access

by Sophie L. Rovner, C&EN Washington
May 16, 2005 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 83, Issue 20


Time was, a researcher typed a manuscript and mailed it to a publisher. If the manuscript made it through peer review and was accepted, the author could expect the article to appear in a printed journal some months later.

How times have changed.

Now a researcher submits a digital manuscript, which the publisher passes on to reviewers, who may offer feedback in as little as a day. As soon as a manuscript is accepted, it may be posted on a journal's website, before or after the paper goes through digital editing and production.

Digital capabilities clearly have enhanced the publishing process, and in isolation, they might have left the fundamentals of the journal market unchanged. But two other forces have been at work, and they are dramatically reshaping market dynamics.

First, prices for many journals that cover science, technology, and medicine (STM) have risen substantially over the past decade, particularly for those produced by commercial publishers. This pricing trend has forced libraries to cancel some subscriptions and cut back on other purchases and has stirred considerable resentment among some readers, subscribing institutions, authors, and even editors.

At the same time, Internet users have grown accustomed to being able to jump around the Web to access nearly any conceivable piece of information and in many cases to read it for free. It's hardly surprising that these users would come to want free online access--commonly called open access--to journal articles as well.

Publishers have responded to the call for open access with replies ranging from "sure thing" to "let me think about it" to "not on your life." One of their prime considerations is revenue, because open access has the potential to throw publishers off their economic foundations. If a new journal starts as an open-access publication, or if an established journal converts to open access and its customers drop their subscriptions as a result, the publisher must turn to other revenue sources such as page charges, research-funding agencies, or institutional sponsors.

Publishers who choose to commit to open access also have to decide how open the access should be. Should they offer full, immediate access to all of their journals? Should they offer access only to material that's at least a year old (a model that some refer to as "back access" rather than open access)? Or should they provide online access only to subscribers--a model referred to as "toll access"--while allowing authors to post their own articles on their personal websites? This particular flavor of open access, which many publishers already permit, is much less likely to have a negative impact on subscription revenue.

Publishers are experimenting with all these models and more. Many of the experiments are occurring in fields such as physics and the life sciences. Pressure is building on publishers of chemistry journals to follow suit.

OPEN ACCESS therefore has been debated in numerous chemistry-related venues, including the pages of C&EN (March 7, page 37); the American Chemical Society national meeting held in San Diego in March; and a workshop hosted by the National Academies in Washington, D.C., in October 2004. Ned D. Heindel, a chemistry professor at Lehigh University and 1994 president of ACS, organized the workshop in association with the Chemical Sciences Roundtable of the academies' National Research Council. The group released a report on the workshop last week; it's posted at

The workshop was designed to address whether chemical journals are too expensive and inaccessible. Nicholas R. Cozzarelli, a professor of molecular and cell biology at the University of California, Berkeley, and editor-in-chief of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, was among the attendees who responded to this question with a hearty "yes" and who think that the expense and inaccessibility present a serious problem.

The solution, Cozzarelli believes, is open access. Backers of the movement cite several reasons for their support. Some believe that greater access to journal articles will advance research faster. More researchers will read open-access articles than articles that require a subscription, the reasoning goes, and those readers will be able to apply the findings and build upon them.

Another principal argument is that because researchers provide publishers with manuscripts for free, publishers shouldn't charge for access to those papers once they're published. Some proponents believe that the results of research supported by the public through taxes should be accessible to its sponsors. In addition, smaller universities and colleges that can't afford to subscribe to a large number of journals would benefit from open access.

On the other hand, others believe that open access is a solution in want of a problem. As Heindel put it at the workshop, "Chemists in general feel they have adequate access" to journals. "We're not in a crisis mode."

Some advise caution because open access could prove counterproductive. ACS, for instance, "has legitimate worries that open access will undermine subscription revenue, thereby compromising the society's ability to sustain a high-quality publishing program for the long run," according to Robert D. Bovenschulte, president of ACS's Publications Division.

Journal revenues are used in part to support administration of the peer review system as well as careful editing and composition of manuscripts. In chemistry journals, "structures matter, even in tables of contents, and they are expensive" to process, because they need careful checking and sometimes require nonstandard structural representation, Heindel said. Furthermore, he noted, manuscript submissions and acceptances for chemistry journals are rising, raising publisher costs for staff hours, paper, printing, and shipping.

Mounting and maintaining publications online and developing new digital functionalities can also require substantial funds. For example, Patrick Jackson, publishing director for chemistry and chemical engineering publications for the commercial publisher Elsevier, said at the workshop that the firm is spending $200 million during 2005 and 2006 to move ScienceDirect, its huge online collection of journal products, to a new architecture. ACS, too, has invested heavily in computer technology for its journals.

There are further concerns about the possible impact of open access on other programs supported by publishing revenues. For example, at ACS, these funds support the development of new journals, such as Nano Letters, that respond to emerging fields, according to Madeleine Jacobs, executive director and chief executive officer of ACS.

OTHER PRODUCTS and activities funded at least in part by journal income include the society's website,, which provides educational information on chemistry to a global audience; National Chemistry Week, which enhances the public appreciation of chemistry; and education programs that enable teachers to do a better job of teaching science, Jacobs noted. "Revenues do advance the scientific community's work worldwide and don't just go to support ACS member services," she concluded. "The amount that is reinvested every year is millions of dollars."

The argument that professional societies need journal profits to help fund their other programs doesn't wash with Cozzarelli. "It's a kind of extortion," he said at the workshop. A subscriber who wants the content of one of the society journals is forced to support these other programs, whether or not the subscriber wants to.

In sum, open-access backers are unhappy with the status quo. Although they have directed their anger in particular at commercial publishers with large profit margins, publishers with significantly smaller margins--including ACS--are also drawing fire now. Indeed, the society came in for some severe bashing at both the ACS meeting and the workshop regarding pricing and access.

But Peter Gregory, managing director for publishing at the Royal Society of Chemistry, defended ACS in an e-mail after the workshop. "ACS publications are widely regarded as being amongst the finest and best value in the world," he wrote. "ACS can really not be accused" of making its journals either expensive or inaccessible.

ACS finds itself in an interesting dilemma, with some of its representatives pushing for open access and others hating the very thought. Charles P. Casey--who was ACS president at the time of the workshop and is now immediate past-president--was obviously reluctant to disclose his personal opinion at the National Academies workshop. When attendees pushed him to do so, he voiced his support of open access, no doubt startling some at the meeting. "Speaking for myself," he added, "I'd like to see ACS [give] more access to our journals than we have now. I'm lobbying for that internally."

Indeed, since the workshop, ACS has announced experimental new policies intended to provide free access to articles one year after publication (C&EN, March 7, page 10). The first policy applies to articles written by scientists whose research is funded by the National Institutes of Health. NIH itself recently established a policy encouraging scientists it supports to submit their peer-reviewed manuscripts to PubMed Central, the agency's open-access digital repository of biomedical and life sciences journal literature (C&EN, Feb. 7, page 23). On behalf of its NIH-funded authors, ACS has now committed to deposit the author's version of an accepted, peer-reviewed manuscript in PubMed Central, for release to the public 12 months after publication.

ACS's second new experimental policy covers all of its authors. In the past, the society has permitted authors to distribute up to 50 free digital reprints of an article during the first year after publication via a link to an ACS website. Now ACS will eliminate the limit after the first year. Neither of these new policies affects access to the society's journal archive, which currently contains articles that are more than five years old and costs subscribers $1,500 to $4,500 per year depending on the size of the institution.

FOR SOME, ACS's new measures don't go far enough. Indeed, Casey noted that the editors of a majority of the society's journals support some form of open access, even if access isn't immediate. Gordon G. Hammes, former editor of ACS's Biochemistry, stated flatly at the workshop that "a responsible scientific society should not charge for electronic archives." He believes that access to journal articles should become free within six months to a year after publication. Costs associated with maintaining the online archive could be paid for by "adding a trivial amount to journal subscriptions," he said.

Regarding that issue, Elsevier's Jackson said at the workshop that for some journals, such as those in molecular and cell biology, most usage occurs within three to six months of publication. Offering such journals free after 12 months would therefore have little impact on revenues. In fields where significant usage occurs after the first year, such as chemistry, the proposition would be much riskier, he said.

Steven M. Bachrach, a chemistry professor at Trinity University, San Antonio, noted at the ACS meeting that citation rates for chemistry articles remain high several years after publication. That means that these articles continue to have value to readers--and thus to the society--beyond the first year.

"The longer the delay between publication and open access, the lesser the prospect of causing a reduction in subscriptions," Bovenschulte noted. "But no one really knows how institutional customers will react to free access after various time intervals."

It's possible that open access and profit--or at least cost recovery--can coexist. A number of models that aim to satisfy these two needs are being proposed and tested. (For a list of open-access journals categorized by subject matter, see the Directory of Open Access Journals at

Bachrach described one such model, sometimes called an overlay journal, at the ACS meeting. In the version he described, authors would deposit their manuscripts in open-access repositories based at their universities. Journal publishers would select certain papers from these repositories to peer review and copyedit. The resulting "journal" would consist of a table of contents with digital links to the edited articles. Bachrach believes that peer review and copyediting would represent an added value that subscribers would be willing to pay for.

Most publishers are unlikely to move this far from conventional formats--at least for now. Instead, they are testing models that mix traditional aspects of publishing with varying degrees of enhanced access.

The Institute of Physics, for one, has adopted an unusual access model for its journals: It provides open access to all articles during the first 30 days after publication and then converts them to toll access.


Several other publishers are experimenting with the model that is being urged on ACS--free online access to content within a year of publication. For instance, beginning this January, Elsevier made the content of its Cell Press family of journals available for free one year after publication.

The Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences provides free access to its archive after six months. "Not only has it not adversely affected us, it has benefited us by engendering loyalty among authors and reviewers," Cozzarelli said at the workshop. "It generates goodwill." PNAS originally tested a model in which it provided free access one month after publication, noted editorial staff member Sarah B. Tegen at the ACS meeting. But subscriptions declined, and the delay was extended to six months.

PNAS authors who don't want to wait that long for their articles to become available to everyone can make them instantly free by paying a $1,000 open-access fee, which can be waived in cases of need. The fee drops to $750 for authors from institutions that have site licenses for PNAS. In the April 26, 2005, issue, authors of six articles out of 61 opted for the open-access feature. PNAS will track whether these articles are read more than toll-access articles. So far, on average, the articles that are open access immediately are read 50% more than the other articles, according to Cozzarelli.

Springer, another commercial publisher, introduced a similar option in mid-2004 with its Open Choice program. Authors who want their articles to be immediately free to all on Springer's website pay a $3,000 fee.

In terms of operating costs and revenue expectations, PNAS is in an exceptional position. Unlike Springer and many other publishers, the National Academy of Sciences does not permit PNAS to retain any surplus and does not expect it to fund other academy activities.

Even well-funded chemists resist page charges, according to Heindel.
Even well-funded chemists resist page charges, according to Heindel.

EACH ARTICLE that appears in PNAS costs the journal up to $3,800 to publish. The journal covers part of this cost through author publication charges, which average about $1,500 per article. As with several other journals that levy publication charges, PNAS can waive this fee in cases of need, although only about 2% of authors request a waiver. PNAS covers most of the remainder of publishing costs through subscriptions and site licenses, which range from $250 to $6,600.

PLoS currently publishes PLoS Biology (launched in 2003) and PLoS Medicine (2004). Three other open-access journals, in the fields of computational biology, genetics, and pathogens, are planned for 2005.

When a workshop attendee asked PLoS Executive Director Vivian Siegel what the prospects are for starting a PLoS Chemistry journal as a way to pressure ACS to loosen its access and pricing policies, she responded, "You're not the first person to ask me." PLoS is staying out of chemistry this year but is not making a commitment to stay out of the field after that, she said. As some workshop speakers noted, however, chemistry publishing is less dominated by high-margin commercial publishers than are fields such as the life sciences. So the chemistry journal market may not be as appealing a target for other publishers.

The chemistry sector differs from the life sciences sector in other ways. Whereas page charges are widely accepted in the life sciences, they are resisted in the field of chemistry. ACS, for one, stopped trying to collect page charges about five years ago. Heindel noted that when he was involved in an ACS review of page charges, "we saw a large number of well-funded chemists who pleaded poverty. It was an enormous problem."

Physics journals face some of the same challenges. At the American Physical Society (APS), Editor-In-Chief Martin Blume said at the workshop, "page-charge revenue has gone virtually to zero" because prior experimentation has shown that authors will switch to other publishers' journals rather than pay the fees. He stated that there may be a difference between publication charges that enable open access to an author's article and those that don't net the author additional benefits.

But physicist authors may be unwilling to pay even for open access. The U.K.'s Institute of Physics and its publishing partner, the German Physical Society, are shelling out nearly $200,000 a year to keep their online-only, open-access New Journal of Physics afloat. The journal, which this year is charging author fees ranging up to $900 per paper, has been "a total financial failure," Gregory said.

If open-access journals are to succeed in chemistry and physics, it's quite possible that authors will have to drop their opposition to page charges, and they may even have to agree to manuscript submission charges. That's not likely to happen unless organizations that fund research include some extra monies for publishing the results. Other institutions with an interest in widening access may also subsidize publication costs.

For example, the Joint Information Systems Committee (JISC), which supports innovative use of information technology in education, has set up agreements that permit U.K. academics to publish in some open-access journals for free, including the New Journal of Physics and journals published by BioMed Central. BioMed Central relies on a mix of institutional memberships, author charges for nonmembers, and revenues from ancillary products such as Faculty of 1000--a literature-evaluation service--to support its publishing activities.

In some cases, institutional sponsors serve as the sole source of funds for an open-access journal. APS offers one such publication, the online-only Physical Review Special Topics--Accelerators & Beams. Launched in 1998, the journal is supported by large-accelerator laboratories. The labs were motivated to provide backing because "a peer-reviewed journal in this field was badly needed," according to Blume. Of course, if the labs were to decide to withdraw their support, APS would need to institute author or subscription charges.

Similarly, the nonprofit Beilstein Institute for the Advancement of Chemical Sciences will financially support a new peer-reviewed chemistry journal that is due to begin publishing later this year (C&EN, March 21, page 13). The institute will publish the open-access Beilstein Journal of Organic Chemistry in cooperation with BioMed Central.

Fully open-access journals are "gold" no matter what their source of revenue, according to a classification developed by Stevan Harnad, a cognitive scientist at the University of Quebec, Montreal, and a central figure in open-access circles. Although these journals have attracted considerable attention, they don't provide the only means for readers to view articles for free. As an alternative, many journals allow authors to place a copy of their own articles in an open-access digital archive. Depending on the publisher's requirements, the repository may be a researcher's personal website, a university-wide repository, or even NIH's PubMed Central.

Harnad, who is a champion of such "self-archiving," terms journals that permit the practice "green." Examples of green journals and publishers include Science, PNAS, APS, Elsevier, Springer, and Nature Publishing Group.

"The objective of open access is to maximize research impact by maximizing research access," according to Harnad.
"The objective of open access is to maximize research impact by maximizing research access," according to Harnad.

Publishers such as ACS, whose journals offer neither open access nor self-archiving, are termed "gray." Harnad would like to see ACS ease its access restrictions, but he doesn't think it's necessary for the society to go gold. "All ACS needs to do now in order to be on the side of the angels is to go green," he wrote in an e-mail after the workshop.

The Wellcome Trust believes it is on firm financial footing in supporting open access as a publishing model. In an economic analysis published last year (, the charity concluded that author-funded open-access publishing "should be able to deliver high-quality, peer-reviewed research at a cost that is significantly less than the traditional" subscriber-supported model. Savings will occur because author-pays journals lack costs for subscription management, license negotiations, and many sales costs, according to the trust.

Even if the group is correct, not all subscribing institutions would benefit equally in an author-pays, open-access model. For example, top research universities could see their journal-related costs go up, because these universities presumably are responsible for the majority of papers in journals.

Cornell University Library analyzed the financial impact on more than 100 universities in a study released last year ( For Cornell itself, whose researchers publish more than 3,500 scholarly articles annually, switching from a subscription-funded system to one funded solely by authors would increase total expenditures for serials by at least $1.5 million, or 19%, per year. Of course, if research-funding organizations footed the bill for at least some of these page charges, Cornell wouldn't have to absorb such a large increase.

ON THE OTHER HAND, Trinity University publishes only about 20 to 30 science and engineering articles per year, Bachrach said at the ACS meeting. "So we would come out positive" if open access supported by author fees supplanted the subscription model.

There could be some other peculiar consequences of a transition to open-access journals supported by author charges. Bovenschulte noted that about one-third of ACS journal revenue comes from subscriptions in the industrial sector. If open access takes hold and is primarily financed through author fees, the burden of journal support will shift more squarely onto the shoulders of academe. That's because industrial scientists submit very few of the articles in ACS journals.


So what is the likely future for increased access to journal articles? Despite the fact that many journals permit it, "researchers have been slow to self-archive" their papers, both because they don't realize the benefits and because they are busy, Harnad has conceded. In fact, he estimates that only about 15% of STM authors are self-archiving. Nor have authors flocked to open-access journals; they still want to publish their papers in high-prestige journals, which are rarely the open-access publications. Furthermore, some researchers remain unaware of the whole open-access issue. Therefore, if open access does take hold, it's likely that the driving forces will be institutions and readers rather than authors.

Moreover, it's quite possible that a shift away from the traditional subscription-based model won't produce any savings for the community as a whole. "In an open-access model of refereed scholarly publishing," according to the Cornell University Library report, "the costs of publishing do not go away, they are simply redistributed."


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