:// E n g l i s h   M a t t e r s



Victoria Shelton

Sciences Librarian
Prince William Campus Library

Scholarly communication is an essential part of the scientific research process. Not only do scientists want to disseminate the results of their work to the public and their peers, but they also need to ensure that their research findings are original. While the highlights of scientific discoveries are often described in mass media, the details of the research studies are largely reported through professional journal articles, which make up the bulk of scholarly publishing.

Under the prevailing subscription-based system, commercial publishers maintain a monopoly over the distribution of scientific research. They charge authors for the publication of their works, then charge the readers subscription, advertising, and online access fees; in addition they retain the copyright of the articles they publish. Consequently, though the vast majority of the scientific research is publicly financed by taxpayers dollars, access to research is not freely and publicly available: it is restricted to customers who can afford to pay for subscriptions.

In the past few years, the escalating cost of journals has forced many individuals and institutions to cancel their subscriptions, thus excluding large parts of the scientific community from scholarly interaction, especially in the developing countries. Until recently, many publishers and researchers believed that there was no better way to disseminate research findings; but in the late 1990s a few initiatives began exploring the alternatives to traditional subscription-based standards, launching the idea of a new publishing model — Open Access.


The open access movement began in the late 1990s in the biomedical sciences as a response to increasing journal cost, which priced many individual and institutional subscribers out of access to the latest research studies. Open access means that the full-text of scientific papers are available online as soon as they are published, free of charge, with no restrictions on access or use. The idea of open access is based on the view that research findings, particularly in health sciences, should be freely and immediately available to the world-wide scientific community, clinicians, and the public.

According to Dr. Dorothy Bainton, vice chancellor of academic affairs at University of California at San Francisco, "Timely access to a broad range of current scientific publications is a necessity … for both our clinicians, so that they may care for patients with the most up-to-date data, as well as our scientists who are making the breakthroughs in such areas as cancer, infectious, cardiovascular and neurological diseases." [1]


According to the Association of Research Libraries, open access "refers to works that are created with no expectation of direct monetary return and made available at no cost to the reader on the public internet for purposes of education and research." [2]

While open access publications are intended to be free for readers, they are not free for producers. Open access challenges the traditional subscription-based publishing model by offering an alternative — an article processing fee. Instead of charging subscribers, the open access publishers cover the cost of peer review and publication by charging authors, or research sponsors, for each article they publish. This fee can be paid by authors or via their institute's membership (for example, the Public Library of Science initially charges authors a processing fee of $1,500 per accepted article; BioMed Central charges a fee of $525).


There are two initiatives that are in the center of the open access movement: BioMed Central (BMC) and the Public Library of Science (PLoS).

BioMed Central (BMC), a UK based publishing house, provides immediate and open access to full-text of research articles published in its 90+ online journals covering all areas of biology and medicine. The BMC's commitment to open access, as stated on the BMC website, is based on the premise that "open access to research is central to rapid and efficient progress in science and that subscription-based access to research is hindering rather than helping scientific communication." [3] Once published in BMC journals, all articles are indexed in PubMed, and, where appropriate, in BIOSIS, ISI, and other databases. The articles are also archived in PubMed Central, and deposited in CrossRef. Because of an effective online system for submission, peer reviewing, and publication, all papers become rapidly available for a worldwide scientific audience.

Following the lead of BMC in the open access movement, the Public Library of Science (PLoS), a California non-profit group of bioscientists formed in 2000, has decided to publish two online peer-reviewed journals funded by a $9 million grant from the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation.

The first issue of PLoS Biology, published on October 13, 2003, has been a success and received more than half million hits throughout the world within a few hours after publication. In the first issue of PLoS Biology, Duke University researchers Miguel Nicoleis and Jose Carmena publicized their research findings about how they had trained monkeys with brain implants to move a robot arm with their thoughts, a discovery which might one day allow paraplegics to perform similar functions. "Nothing else has ever argued so strongly for open-access publishing," said Michael Eisen, a co-founder of PLoS. [4]

In addition to publishing research material, PLoS Biology summarizes the main points of each article in order to make them more accessible for a non-specialist reader. The founders of PLoS (Michael Eisen, a biologist at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory; Harold Varmus, a Nobel laureate; and Patrick Brown, a biochemist at Stanford University) stated that their "intention is to do something that fundamentally changes the way scientific research is communicated." [4] If open access succeeds, they continued, "everyone with an internet connection will be a click away from a comprehensive online public library of scientific and medical knowledge." [4]

There are a few other open access projects that deserve special attention: PubMed Central, a digital repository at the National Institutes of Health, that aims to provide open access to the full text of all peer-reviewed articles in life sciences; the Budapest Open Access Initiative; and the Scholarly Publishing and Academic Resources Coalition (SPARC). The latter two, in addition to publishing open-access journals, also promote self-archiving by institutions.


In June 2003, Martin Sabo, a Minnesota congressman, introduced a bill entitled the Public Access to Science Act (H.R 2613). The bill addresses several contemporary controversies in scientific publishing including copyright to published research material.

According to Sabo's bill, works resulting from scientific research substantially funded by the government would be excluded from copyright protection and become public domain. Since scientific research is largely funded by tax dollars, Sabo said, the results of research should be freely and immediately available to taxpayers who ultimately pay for conducting research.

Sabo's bill poses a direct challenge to large commercial publishers. Under the established system, most scientific journals own the copyrights to research papers they publish. Authors traditionally assign copyright to the publisher, which means that they cannot freely distribute their works or allow open access to them. Under Sabo's bill, journals would not own the papers they publish.

Contrary to commercial publishers, open access journals leave it up to authors to decide whether they wish to retain the copyright or transfer copyright to the author's institution or to the open access publisher. "But no matter who owns the copyright," states the PLoS's FAQ (http://www.plos.org/faq.html), "authors will be required to grant to the public domain an irrevocable license to print, copy, or use the work in any lawful way."


Though some publishers are sympathetic to open access initiatives, only a few of them are willing to experiment with a new business model. Oxford University Press (OUP) announced in June 2004 that the Nucleic Acids Research (NAR), one of the most important OUP journals, will adopt an open access publishing model starting in January 2005. "Open Access is the future of scientific publication and one that we should all work hard to make successful,” said Richard Roberts, a Nobel laureate, Senior Editor for NAR.[5]

Springer, a publisher of 1,250 scientific journals, has taken a step towards open access by offering its authors the Springer Open Choice model. Authors who select the Springer Open Choice can now make their articles freely available online, yet by paying a considerable fee of US$3,000 per article. [6]

Many open access advocates consider the traditional commercial publishing system obsolete and believe that the future of scholarly publishing belongs to open access. Yet skeptics wonder whether open access journals will survive financially in the long term, since they charge relatively small article processing fees, paid upfront by researchers, instead of substantial fees for subscriptions. "To attempt to legislate the demise of the time-honored subscription-based business model, prior to proving that another model works, does not seem wise," stated Michael Held, the Executive Director of the Rockefeller University Press. [7]

Whether open access publishers will succeed largely depends on whether their journals can build prestige and encourage scientists to publish their research papers in an unproven journal instead of a traditional one. Gerry Rubin, a prominent geneticist at the Howard Hughes Medical Institute (HHMI), says that though the HHMI encourages its researchers to publish in open access journals "they are not yet ready to make open access an obligation, partly because there are not yet enough high quality Open Access journals." [8]


While open access advocates and their opponents are waiting to see how the new publishing model develops, academic libraries are struggling to fulfill their primary mission during the "serials crisis" — to provide access to information. On one side, open access will certainly benefit many academic libraries with limited budgets, which have been forced to cancel subscriptions to some of the expensive science journals. On the other side, libraries are unlikely to drop the most important subscriptions because of the value and utility of traditional scientific journals.

As seen from the viewpoint of a science librarian, it now becomes increasingly important that librarians and faculty work cooperatively on developing library collections. Collaborative collection development is the most effective way to build a balanced science collection because both professionals — scientists and information specialists — bring to their partnership unique competencies, skills, and knowledge.



In summer 2003, George Mason University, along with other prominent institutions around the world has joined in the BioMed Central membership program. The Institutional Membership waives the $525 publishing fee for all GMU researchers. Don Seto, an Associate Professor at the School of Computational Sciences (SCS), who has published his papers in BMC journals and reviewed BMC manuscripts, says: "Membership in BioMed Central supports the new generation of research publications and exchange of information." Another SCS researcher, an Associate Professor Iosif Vaisman, notes that BMC is a conceptually new model of publishing and distribution, which will become much more prominent in the future. "Thank you very much for securing the institutional access to BMC," said Dr. Vaisman. "I hope many of us will benefit from the access to BMC." In 2004, GMU has joined the network of Public Library of Science (PloS) members to support the transition to open access publishing. GMU authors receive discounts on publication charges of $1500 per article.


[1] Keay Davidson. Bay Area lead revolt against scientific journals. San Francisco Chronicle: October 27, 2003, p. 44.

[2] Association of Research Libraries <http://www.arl.org>

[3] BioMed Central <http://www.biomedcentral.com>

[4] Michael Eisen. Publish and be praised: Why it's high time the results of scientific research were freely available to everyone. The Guardian: October 9, 2003, Science Pages: p.6.

[5] Open Access Now: News. OUP takes a bold step following its Open Access experiment. August 2, 2004 <http://www.biomedcentral.com/openaccess/news/?issue=19>

[6] Open Access Now: News. Publishing giant springs towards Open Access. August 2, 2004 <http://www.biomedcentral.com/openaccess/news/?issue=19>

[7] Michael J. Held. Proposed legislation supports an untested publishing model. The Journal of Cell Biology: v. 162 (2), 2003: 171-172.

[8] "The switch to open access publishing is inevitable" (Interview with Gerry Rubin). The Scientist: v. 17 (4), July 14, 2003: p. A2 (2).


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