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  • Open-access publishers reject unsustainability charge


Open-access publishers have told a UK parliamentary inquiry that the open-access approach to scientific publishing is financially sustainable – and will not reduce the quality of scientific journals.

Indeed they claimed that, by making scientific information more widely available, open-access publishing will increase the use made of research results.

The comments were made yesterday (8 March) to the House of Commons Science and Technology Committee, which is carrying out an investigation of the cost and availability of scientific publications.

Last week, Britain's leading commercial scientific publishers, most of whom follow the traditional publishing model of requiring readers to pay to access content, lambasted the open-access model for lacking financial viability, and for threatening the integrity of the world's leading journals (see UK science publishers give open-access warning).

But Harold Varmus, co-founder of the Public Library of Science (PLoS), an open-access publisher and advocacy group, told the committee yesterday that such arguments were "completely false".

"We have reviewers who [determine] what is accepted [in the journal]," he said, adding that the processes of peer review and editing scientific papers remain constant, however their costs are covered. "We, as a publication, want our journals to be high quality – it's the only way we're going to be successful."

Furthermore, he said that it was a fallacy to suggest that scientists would have to reach into their own pockets to pay the 'author fees' charged by open-access. This money would be assigned for publishing in their research grants.

In written evidence to the inquiry, PLoS pointed out that under the traditional publishing system, organisations that sponsor scientific research pay virtually all of the costs of scientific publishing through the funds indirectly provided to research libraries. "In an open access system, these same parties would pay, but they would get far more for their money," it says.

And open access will also be a boon for developing countries, argued Varmus. PLoS waives fees for scientists in the developing world who cannot afford them, he said, adding: "I can't imagine anything more important [than freeing up access to information] at a time when the diseases of the developing world need to be conquered."

Vitek Tracz, chairman of the open-access publisher BioMed Central, said that open access is a viable business model that "gives us a competitive advantage, not a disadvantage".

Responding to statements made last week by Richard Charkin, the chief executive of Macmillan, which publishes Nature, that switching to open access would require the company to charge authors between US$10,000 and US$30,000 for each article published, Tracz argued that the role of publishers in handling scientific papers has been "widely exaggerated completely out of proportion".

The publishers are "facilitators", he said: "It is the scientists that do the research and the reviewing. In general, we don't need to do that much." BioMed Central charges authors about US$500 per article (PLoS Biology, the flagship publication of PLoS launched last October, charges US$1,500).

"At [the rates we charge], we can be a profitable, successful publisher," Tracz said. "The profit margins of open access will be much less that the current model, but they will be sustainable."

Varmus encouraged other publishers to switch to an open-access model. "Our goal now is not to take over the world but to make other publishers see the virtues of open access and experiment [with it]," he said.

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