Gas station without pumps

2010 December 15

ISCB open access policies

The International Society for Computational Biology has approved two policies on open science:

The more recent open-access statement is carefully worded not to overlap with the previous policy on software sharing.  The short statement of the new policy is

The International Society for Computational Biology strongly advocates free, open, public, online: (i) access by person or machine to the publicly-funded archival scientific and technical research literature; and (ii) computational reuse, integration, and distillation of that literature into higher-order knowledge elements.

Note particularly the inclusion of “publicly-funded”—this policy is not about socializing proprietary research funded by individuals or corporations, but about distributing publicly-funded knowledge.

Although I agree with the main thrust of the policy, I have some concerns about how the distribution of research results will be funded.  The current publication landscape is complex, with a mixture of author-pays, subscriber-pays, advertiser-pays, and hybrid models.  Most of the traditional and big-name journals are using the subscriber-pays model, which is the only one definitely not compatible with new policy.  The abuse of the near-monopoly position of many of these journals, leading to unsustainable library subscription rates, is a large part of what drove the Society to adopt the new policy.  (Another part was the desire of data-miners to be able to mine the literature more effectively, hence the awkwardly phrased part ii.)

I worry that widespread adoption of the new policy could result in dominance of author-pays models for publication, which would squeeze out unfunded researchers from publication, and lead to a further dilution of peer review, as the journal publishers would no longer care as much about quality (no subscribers to please) as about quantity (maximizing author fees).

The possible future dominance of the author-pays model concerns me personally, as I have been an unfunded researcher for 2 years now, and I have found by personal experience that even journals that claim to have fee waivers for unfunded researchers are very, very reluctant to grant them.  It is now very easy for someone willing to pay $3000 to get published in some open-access journal, and very hard for someone not able to pay that money.  Are only the rich to be allowed to publish?

I don’t think that the advertiser-pays model is viable for scientific research publication, as the average article has too few readers to justify high ad prices, and the biases of advertiser-pays trade journals of the past have left most researchers very suspicious of any articles in journals with substantial advertising.  It is too difficult to make sure that there is an adequate firewall between the editorial content and the advertising (the failure of such firewalls in trade journals does not lead me to expect them to work in research journals).

Perhaps it is time to have some more direct 3rd-party funding of publication.  I don’t see big universities like the University of California paying for publication fees (which run $2ooo–3000 an article) for all their faculty, so I’m thinking more in terms of government funding directly to open-access journal publishers (not redirected through grants to the researchers).  I’m not sure how to make this work without abuse by the publishers (if we could trust the publishers not to be greedy, the subscriber-pays model would not have fallen apart from price gouging).

To tell the truth, one reason I don’t have any clear suggestions for how to fund scientific publication is that I don’t really understand the economics of scientific publishing. The authors, editors, and reviewers are not paid for their work, and the typesetting is often so poorly done that I can’t believe that it is done by people paid a professional wage. Copy editing seems to have disappeared completely and manuscript handling is done by badly-designed automatic systems like manuscriptcentral (don’t get me started on the 4-hour process to submit a simple manuscript through that website).  Many open-access journals have only a web presence, which is not very expensive to create or maintain.  Where are the author fees going?  Has anyone audited the books of PLoS  (Public Library of Science) or BMC (BioMedCentral) to figure out the cash flow of open-access scientific publishing?  What is the big drain on funds and can we either eliminate it or subsidize it more efficiently?


  1. Good questions about the economics. Here’s my (with no research or data to back it up) guesses: 1) printing the journal itself. I believe this was a substantial cost, and that though costs remain on hosting servers, etc, that this is a vastly diminished cost in the digital age. 2) paid positions on journals (Nature/Cell, and potentially Science have paid staffers who do editing work). 3) Profits, and in the case of not-for-profits, like society journals, the profits return to the association, and are a profit center for it.

    I think all the economics need to shift around and we need to figure out what it really costs. Then, I’d want to continue with a mix of author-supported — and funded authors should be expecting this to be a cost of their research & direct grants to journals to oversee the work. Those direct grants could come from organizations interested in publication of scientific research (the foundations, NIH, and other funding bodies).

    I don’t think the subscription model can be sustained in academic journal publishing; libraries just no longer have the funds to pay for subscriptions in a world where they don’t actually curate the collections — i.e. the paper. There are powerful dinosaurs, though, who don’t know yet that their model is extinct and are fighting their dying battles (Nature, Cell, Elsevier, Springer, . . . ). They have paid-off allies (professional organizations that get up front payments, scientists who need the prestige and publication venues, etc.). And, they have ideological allies (copyright holders in general, textbook publishers) who are committed to the historical pay/per item of copyrighted information (rather than for the production of it) model.

    Your story of unfunded research is making me pause about the current attempts to shift to the author-pay model (the main thing that’s being tried). My experience is in a field where work is not possible without funding (though I supposed one could be writing up the results of previously funded research off-cycle even in a money-intensive field). Clearly another method has to be devised for fields where scholarship is generally produced by unfunded authors.

    Publication costs haven’t gone up, so the same money is there. It seems like the question is re-distributing it. The problem, I guess, is that some of the money, at least, was subsumed in university budgets that are now under significant pressure. Perhaps indirect cost recoveries need to go down, and that money subverted to journals?

    Comment by bj — 2010 December 15 @ 13:37 | Reply

  2. I am very encouraged to see this society’s OA policy. You also make several good points about the economics. I agree that the University of California is unlikely to fund author fees, although I would like to point out that some academic libraries, including UC Berkeley, do have pilot programs right now to fund open access author fees for their researchers as a transition strategy. Berkeley’s Research Impact Initiative does this. It is co-sponsored by UC Berkeley’s Vice Chancellor for Research and the UCB University Librarian (see ).

    I was also interested to see this recent news article in Science from Aug 2010 that summarizes many of the same issues you bring up (see However, in addition to the economic issues, the article concludes by saying “Despite the hoopla and contention, perhaps the chief obstacle to making more papers freely available is that the average scientist just isn’t engaged.” I’d be very interested in hearing from scientists if this is indeed the case.

    Comment by Christy H — 2010 December 16 @ 14:13 | Reply

  3. “even journals that claim to have fee waivers for unfunded researchers are very, very reluctant to grant them.” I am very surprised by this statement. Could-we know the name of the misbehaving journal(s)? All the OA journals I interacted with publish the articles first and ask for money afterwards. Once the articles are published, they will not remove them, whether you pay or not. And actually it happened once that I forgot to pay for an article. For some reasons, the reminders went to /dev/null and I only found out 3 years later!

    Comment by UtterSkeptic — 2010 December 20 @ 00:44 | Reply

    • It took me five rounds of e-mail bills from Nucleic Acids Research before I could convince them that I had no funding. They finally did accept it, and they weren’t nasty about it, but they could not conceive of a US researcher who wasn’t funded. It got to the point where I was about to ask my wife if we could take the money out of our savings just to shut the NAR people up.

      Comment by gasstationwithoutpumps — 2010 December 20 @ 10:21 | Reply

  4. […] about how unfunded researchers will get published) of the ISCB, whose policy I posted about in  ISCB open access policies.  Perhaps I’d feel differently if I were a generously funded researcher who had never had a […]

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  5. […] blogged before about  an AAUP article on open-access publication,  ISCB open-access policies, and IEEE open-access publishing, as well as passing on an announcement of an advertiser-pays […]

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  6. […] discussed open-access publication policies in the past: Open access to scientific research part 1, ISCB open access policies, IEEE endorses hybrid open access, and New open-access journal. LD_AddCustomAttr("AdOpt", "1"); […]

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