Open Access to Research

Baroness Murphy

Lady Tizzy raised a serious point of frustration reently about the payment barriers that scientific and other academic journals put up to block access to research. It’s a fascinating issue because the research publishing world is changing and almost everyone wants to see research freely available to a wide audience. But publishing peer reviewed papers costs money. At present publishers of scholarly journals get most of their revenue from subscription fees charged to libraries and individual users, the ‘reader pays’ pricing model. An alternative pricing method has recently emerged, in which publishers collect their revenue by charging significant publication fees to authors, and then supply their content over the Internet, at no cost to readers, the ‘author pays’ pricing model. ‘Open Access, Author Pays’ publishing is relatively new and has only become feasible because of the recent development of the Internet; although this has little impact on the fixed costs of producing a journal, it makes the marginal cost of extending Web access to new users almost zero.

In the academic journal market, publishers receive payments from consumers (readers) and also from suppliers (authors). Most journals charge subscription fees to readers. Many also charge page fees to authors and most maintain an implicit requirement that those who publish are obliged to donate refereeing services. Very few scholarly journals pay their authors for content.

Will Open Access be able to compete successfully? This depends largely on whether authors (or universities and granting agencies acting on their behalf) will be willing to pay substantial author fees to support Open Access for their work. Recent studies suggest that Open Access are cited much more often than similar articles without open access. Citations translate into both prestige and promotion. Author Pays, Open Access publishing is one way of realizing the enormous potential gains that the Internet offers. Whether some form of Open Access emerges as the dominant form of academic publishing is likely to depend on how much scholars care about broad distribution of their writings.

After 10 years of providing free access to its peer reviewed research online, the British Medical Journal officially became an open access journal. All research articles are freely available immediately on publication. But the BMJ asks authors to pay a publication fee of £2500 per accepted research article. This only applies, however, when the funder of the research that is reported in the article has already pledged to pay for open access publication and when authors can claim the BMJ fee, in full, from their funder for that specific piece of research.  Open access allows the sharing and reuse of publicly funded research without restriction to everyone everywhere.  In 1998, the BMJ became the first major general medical journal to provide free full text online access to its research articles, to deposit the full text in National Library of Medicine in Washington and to allow authors to retain the copyright of their articles.  Let’s hope more journals move in this direction.

8 comments for “Open Access to Research

  1. 10/09/2010 at 4:46 pm

    How much of the cost of publication could be saved if a journal were to axe the printed version?

    Most journal articles are read once and then discarded, like magazines. Those that are referenced with regularity tend to be more useful when placed online anyway. Should we be looking at going for a more flexible, non-printed version of journals as a matter of course?

  2. 10/09/2010 at 4:59 pm

    ‘Open access’ to research results should be subject to the same basic fact-of-life as does ‘Privacy’ (in Baroness Deech’s post today “Is Privacy Dead ?”;
    namely, that all expenditure from any common-purse: and NB please that there are no justifiable ‘individual’ or ‘private’ purses since every penny taken or given from any Purse represents a life, and subsequently belongs primarily to Earth-Life, as does any derivative therefrom such as a piece of paper, a drop of ink, or a drink of water.
    The argument may be Valid, and certainly is strong, for all Work and all Lifestyles Income and Expenditure, and all Infrastructures and Results-of-Work and of Lifestyle, including of Research, to be the Property of
    1 Earth-Life ;
    2 The Human Race on Earth;
    3 the Disinterested Guardians, of Earth-Life and of Human-Life therein.

    (Further reasoning for the above serious argumentation is waiting in the wings, when space and time permit its publication).
    A subsequent case is also strongly in place for all research results to be disinterestedly ‘translated’ into nothing higher than secondary-school-level language, and be published through the Internet and any other Media, ‘at-cost’ and minimally out of Tax-Monies, on a daily-basis for the eyes of any human-being on Earth having ‘prepaid’ (i.e. out of Taxes) or otherwise easily-affordable access to such Media.
    “Fat bank-accounts, wake up to your Real and Primary Purpose and Role on Earth and among the Human Race” (Anon.)
    Research is the absolute servant of both Earth-Life and Human-Life; make it prepaid-available.

  3. ladytizzy
    10/09/2010 at 6:34 pm

    Pretty much my sentiments, thank you BM, and as JSDM alludes to, this somewhat dovetails with the previous post, Is Privacy Dead?

    The BMJ is a beacon due to its status and the underlying assumption that the author is financially supported by one or more patrons. The key, for me, is with the status for (rather than ‘of’) both author and journal although the “publically funded” bit is rightly up there as an important issue.

    There used to be a healthy dose of altruism with academic papers, with editors and reviwers giving their time freely. Journals were never about making money, with their financing often coming straight out of the pockets of senior lecturers (even from professors on the odd occasion).

    But should this be a UK-only issue?

  4. run seven
    11/09/2010 at 9:23 am

    There’s an interesting article on the crowd-sourcing of peer review here:

    Once you’ve got through the P vs NP mathematical/logic question – the subject of the initial paper – it describes how it sparked a lively debate bringing lots of researchers from different fields (as well as interested non-specialists) to examine the its methods and eventually highlight the flaws.

  5. Senex
    11/09/2010 at 3:16 pm

    RS: Thank you for the link I enjoyed reading the content. It’s a good example of what the good doctor is saying. What you may not know is that BMJ could stand for Baroness-Murphy-Joking, she enjoys a good laugh, but not I fear on this occasion.

    When computer science has developed to the point where a machine can tell a joke we will have solved many of today’s outstanding challenges.

    Take a peek at this:

    And this:

    The Minsky abstract says:
    Freud’s theory of jokes explains how they overcome the mental “censors” that make it hard for us to think “forbidden” thoughts.

    If you consider Day and Night as arguments there are 4 logical combinations. We ask the question which states are valid. It is impossible for there to be ‘no day’ and ‘no night’ together (S0) and just as impossible for both day and night to coexist (S4).

    For a person this is blindingly obvious because we have pre-knowledge of the problem but not for a computer. It must process all states to come to a conclusion and then only report a probability on each state. Now if the computer had a sense of humour it would immediately start giggling when it encountered S0 or S4 because its funny bone would have allowed through some forbidden ‘thoughts’. Without a funny bone its censors would have steered it away from the paradoxes.

    Both linked papers above provide formidable challenges to computing and I look forward to the day when Parliament avails itself of a law making computer with a sense of humour.

  6. Gareth Howell
    12/09/2010 at 5:11 pm

    “BMJ could stand for Baroness-Murphy-Joking”

    How could it be anything else!

  7. Baroness Murphy
    Baroness Murphy
    13/09/2010 at 5:17 pm

    McDuff, of course many secondary journals do now publish only on line but the main costs for the bigger journals are maintaining the peer review system, the editorial support team and the marketing of the paper and web versions. I used to edit the main journal in my own field, everything was done free in theory except for the time taken by my assistant in mailings, editorial meetings and marketing expertise. Many journals are also the main organ of a society and serve to give coherence and membership benefits to co-professionals.

    ladytizzy, this is really a global issue now. Go to for a very helpful guide to where to find open access journals.
    run seven, I particularly like the phrase ‘the nerd superbowl’.I make no comments on Senex and GH, can’t a girl make one joke in 35 years? I am completely humorless now.

  8. 13/09/2010 at 6:47 pm

    The need for the open-access model varies between fields, and the debate around them often ignores preprint servers like the arXiv.

    I feel strongly that, if research has been publicly funded, it must be made publicly available. But how to do this should also take into account the best use of that same public money.

    In my field of astronomy for example, some journals offer the author the choice of spending *many hundreds* of $/£/€ to publish just 10-20 pages as “open access”… or publish in the normal way, for free (or at least comparatively minimal costs). The latter case does not however mean that the work will be forever behind a paywall. Journals may have some specific policy – for example MNRAS allows free access to all articles after 36 months.

    But more significantly, common practice is that authors publish pre-journal versions on the arXiv preprint site, and update them later with the final refereed version. Thus, the article is refereed, edited and published at a minimal cost, but a version of it is still freely available.

    (One can also email the authors and ask for the pdf of course!)

    A much more serious problem is to do with the quality of peer reviews, which is the primary function of journals nowadays (after all, anyone can do the “publishing” bit for free online). This again varies strongly between different fields!

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