Recent watershed events
SPARC Open Access Newsletter, issue #155
March 2, 2011
by Peter Suber
OA has the momentum of thousands of forward steps every year, in every academic field and every part of the world.  But some developments are larger than others, and some are large enough to count as watershed events.  I've noticed an upswing in watershed events recently and want to point out half a dozen of them.  Pointing them out doesn't amount to a prediction, any more than tremors predict earthquakes.  But if you were too preoccupied with local noise to notice these tremors, take a moment to notice them.

(1) The Publishers Association (PA) and Association of Learned and Professional Society Publishers (ALPSP) announced a meeting to take place in London at the end of this month:  "PA-ALPSP Journal Publishers' Forum: Open access: the next ten years" (London, March 31, 2011)

Publishers often hold meetings on OA.  But the blurb for this one quickly makes clear how it differs from other publisher-hosted OA meetings:

Open access is here to stay, and has the support of our key partners. Funders see it as the way to maximise access and impact for the research they fund, policy makers are under pressure to make it happen. Publishers know it is much more complicated and threatening to make it work [for publishers] than is apparent to the advocates and the fund holders. But we [publishers] would benefit from having a compelling, coherent and above all positive story to tell about the role we can play in achieving these objectives. So what can the industry do to respond more pro-actively and positively to open access, while keeping an open mind on individual business models? We want to be seen as partners in the process of science, in the discovery, dissemination, show-casing and stewardship of the outputs of science.  Can we learn not just to live with open access, but to love it as well?  Has the time come to turn the threat into an opportunity?  It is time to find a new consensus.  Come along to a debate between industry leaders who hold a range of opinions on this issue....Listen to the options and decide what is right for your business....

I applaud the PA and ALPSP for raising these questions and framing them in this constructive way.

OA is much easier with publisher cooperation than without it.  There's already a good deal of cooperation:  more than 60% of TA publishers and about 90% of TA journals give blanket permission for author-initiated green OA.  A large percentage of predominantly TA publishers are experimenting with gold OA in one form or another.  But there's still too much lobbying against green OA policies, too much misrepresentation of OA, and too little acknowledgement that OA is better than TA for research and researchers, and too little acknowledgement that institutions mission-bound to advance research (universities, libraries, societies, funders, and governments) have mission-related reasons to foster or require it.  I welcome the PA/ALPSP attempt to build a "new consensus".

BTW, the next most constructive publisher-hosted meeting I can recall was also sponsored by ALPSP:  "Repositories - for better or worse?"  (London, October 5, 2007)

From the blurb for the 2007 meeting:

Should publishers be worried [about rising levels of green OA] or can they find ways of coping in a changing world? Perhaps this is an opportunity for publishers to take advantage of their proven skills to shape new ways of providing access to research...."

Publishers Association

Association of Learned and Professional Society Publishers (ALPSP)

(2) The world's largest peer-reviewed journal is now an OA journal, PLoS ONE.

Participants in Daniel Mietchen's online poll voted this the "open science breakthrough of the year" for 2010.

Size isn't quality.  But a reputation for low quality would deter author submissions and function as a limit on size.  When PLoS ONE launched in late 2006 and announced that it would review submissions for methodological soundness and rigor, but not for significance and impact, many OA skeptics and TA publishers predicted that it would become a warehouse for low quality.  But that's not what happened, in part because reviewing for soundness and rigor is a barrier against low quality.  In fact, something else happened instead.  Not only did PLoS ONE attract voluminous submissions, including breakthrough submissions.  It attracted imitators from other publishers.  (More in watershed event #3 below.)

BTW, what's the evidence that PLoS ONE is highly regarded by authors, and not just a back-stop for work rejected elsewhere?  Is it anyone's first-choice destination?  I'm glad you asked.  In the past few years, PLoS has done an annual survey of its submitting authors, whether their work was accepted or rejected.  The most recent results (released last month) unearthed an answer and a trendline:  "In the 2009 survey 23% of authors viewed PLoS ONE as a first choice journal, and in the 2010 data this figure had increased to 37%."

(3) PLoS ONE's success in attracting submissions, revenue, and reputation inspired a raft of imitators from high-quality, high-prestige publishers. 

To count something as a PLoS ONE imitator, I looked for libre OA and a quorum of PLoS ONE's seven other most distinctive (often related) features:  affordable publication fees, multidisciplinary scope, peer review for soundness rather than significance, large size, rapid turnaround on submissions, interactive post-publication commentary, and article-level impact metrics.

Here are six new titles that fit the bill.  All are new in the past seven months and most in the past four months.

* AIP Advances, from the American Institute of Physics (announced November 2010)

* BMJ Open, from BMJ (announced August 2010; launched February 2011)

* G3: Genes, Genomes, Genetics, from the Genetics Society of America (announced January 2011)

* Physical Review X, from the American Physical Society (announced January 2011)

* Sage Open, from Sage (announced November 2010)

* Scientific Reports, from the Nature Publishing Group (launched January 2011)

Here are some thoughtful comments on the significance of these second-generation PLoS ONEs:

* Paul Jump, Nature's open-access offering may sound death knell for subs model, Times Higher Education, January 13, 2011.
--Excerpt:  "Cameron Neylon, an academic editor at PLoS ONE and the author of the Science in the Open blog, agreed, describing the launch of [NPG's] Scientific Reports as a "very, very big deal"...."The dream of a universal database of freely accessible research outputs is now that much closer to our reach," [Neylon] said. "Between them, PLoS ONE and Scientific Reports could mop up the vast majority of published papers in the sciences, leaving a small number of top-tier journals standing for the 'very best' science.  I think this is the death knell for the majority of 'middling' journals and the large number of low-volume, low-profit, low-prestige journals...."

* Dr. Skeptic, Nature Dabbles in Open Access: A Double Edged Sword? Scepticemia, January 12, 2011.
--Excerpt:  "Nature Publications Group, in a Press release announced the launch of a new, open access journal called Scientific Reports. However, it wasn't long ago that the same people had launched a vicious vilification of the open access model, especially that of PloS ONE, saying 'Public Library of Science (PLoS), the poster child of the open-access publishing movement, is following an haute couture model of science publishing --relying on bulk, cheap publishing of lower quality papers to subsidize its handful of high-quality flagship journals.'..."

* Phil Davis, Nature's Foray Into Full Open Access Journals, Scholarly Kitchen, January 13, 2011.
--Excerpt:  "I will...argue that Nature's Scientific Reports represents a huge threat, not only to PLoS but to non-profit publishing in general....PLoS does not consider ability to pay as a determinant of publication and will grant full or discounted waivers without question.  In contrast, [NPG's] Scientific Reports does not offer to waive publication fees....Now, if Scientific Reports is in direct competition with PLoS ONE...for authors...those with access to funds have two publication options, while authors without funds have just one....In sum, PLoS has its hands tied while Nature has entered the ring fighting with both fists.  And if Nature fails to deliver a knockout, BMJ Open is standing right behind them with gloves ready...." 

* Stuart Shieber, A ray of sunshine in the open-access future, Occasional Pamphlet, January 15, 2011.
--Excerpt:  "The mega-journal trend means that strong traditional publishers with name recognition are entering open-access publishing in a big way [and thereby offering the prestige that has kept many authors from submitting to OA journals]. They'll be hard pressed to trot out their hackneyed canards (vanity press, disenfranchisement). And these journals will provide coverage of a huge swathe of academic fields. Between SAGE Open, PLoS ONE, and Scientific Reports, essentially all of the social sciences, humanities, and natural sciences are covered. In addition, the breadth of these journals means that they will be competing for the same pool of articles. Authors will have a choice between submitting papers in genetics, say, to PLoS One or G3, in physics to AIP Advances or Scientific Reports, and so forth. Publishers will have to compete in order to attract authors, either on price or publisher services or both. They'll have to market these journals to authors, using their intellectual capital to convince authors that OA journals (at least their OA journals) are a Good Thing. As authors and promotion committees get used to using the new article-level metrics (as they already increasingly are, with download counts and h-index), journal brand name --whether of these mega-journals or traditional journals-- will become less important, and authors will feel freer to publish in these and other OA journals, again based on publisher services rather than journal brand name...."

* Liz Allen, Welcome, Nature. Seriously, PLoS Blog, February 19, 2011.
--Excerpt:  "Nature's [launch of Scientific Reports] underscores the growing acceptance of OA, as reflected in recent OA journal launches from other traditional publishers such as the BMJ, Sage, AIP (American Institute of Physics) and APS (American Physical Society)....To realize the full power of Open Access, we urge you to permit your content to be re-used without restriction [Scientific Reports will use CC-BY-NC-ND and CC-BY-NC-SA licenses while all PLoS journals use CC-BY] and to extend the Open Access model to all your journals...."

(4) In the same month that the Nature Publishing Group (NPG) launched Scientific Reports, its PLoS ONE rival, it issued an important new statement on OA in general.

Although Nature's green OA policy is an outlier requiring a six month embargo, NPG sees no threat to its subscriptions, no reason to discourage self-archiving, and no reason to stop short of positive encouragement for self-archiving, and no reason to hide its encouragement.  From the new statement:

We encourage self-archiving of the authors' accepted version, with a release date of 6 months post-publication. This is compatible with all major funder access policies and mandates....We have, to date, found author self-archiving compatible with subscription business models, and so we have been actively encouraging self-archiving since 2005...."

The NPG testimonial that "author self-archiving [is] compatible with subscription business models" should make the publishing lobby pause.  Individual publishers may have their reasons not to follow the NPG lead and "actively encourage" self-archiving.  But NPG is speaking from experience, and trade associations and lobbyists who claim that embargoed green OA will kill subscriptions are speaking from fear, and they are not representing the experience of publishers on the ground. 

The NPG statement about green OA is very analogous to Springer CEO Derk Haank's statement about gold OA in October 2008, when Springer bought BioMed Central:  "[O]pen access publishing [is] a sustainable part of STM publishing, and not an ideological crusade."

In fact, Derk Haank is one of many who should take note of NPG's statement.  In the same month that NPG issued its new OA statement, Haank admitted to Richard Poynder in an interview that Springer --the world's largest OA journal publisher-- lobbies against green OA mandates.

Read in context, however, Haank seems to object to short embargoes more than mandatory deposits.  If so, then it might seem that he would support NPG's embargoed approach to green OA.  However, all the green OA mandates from funding agencies around the world allow embargoes at least as long as NPGs, and the most lobbied-against green OA mandate in the world, at the NIH, allows an embargo twice as long as NPGs.  Hence, if Springer lobbies against green funder OA mandates because of their short embargo periods, then it objects to embargoes that NPG is saying from experience are harmless.  That's what Haank needs to hear.  More importantly, all publishers and publisher trade associations lobbying against green OA mandates with 6+ month embargoes, and all policy-makers and legislators around the world, need to hear NPG's testimony that those embargoes do not harm subscription publishing. 

(5) In October 2010, Ten major institutions founded the UK Open Access Implementation Group to "coordinate evidence, policies, systems, advice and guidance, to make open access an easy choice for authors and one that benefits all universities...." 

At launch, the group consisted of representatives from the University of Edinburgh, the University of Salford, Universities UK, Research Libraries UK, the Society of College, National and University Libraries, JISC, the Research Councils UK, the Wellcome Trust, the Association of Research Managers and Administrators UK, and the Public Library of Science.

This should lead to major steps forward in the UK.  The OAIG will coordinate strategies among like-minded groups and make action and advocacy more effective.  Every country with a significant research output should have a similar group, and should take pains to include research institutions, library organizations, funding agencies, and friendly publishers. 

The US has had a similar Open Access Working Group since 2003.

I'm optimistic about the OAIG, and recommend the same model elsewhere, precisely because of my experience with the US OAWG.  I can mention three reasons why.  First, people pushing for change, even experienced and committed people, benefit from talking to other experienced and committed people pushing for change.  Good strategies rarely emerge full-blown from one person or group.  Second, effecting change is easier with a coalition of coordinated partners than a melange of uncoordinated activists.  Good strategies can rarely be put into practice by a single person or group.  And third, legislators and policy-makers want to hear good arguments and evidence.  But lots of people claim to have good arguments and evidence.  The most honest amplifier of good arguments --hence, ruling out money-- is support from major institutions who understand policy-making and who have authentic histories of working in the public interest.  Effective strategies require persuasion, and persuasion requires credibility.

(6) The three largest commercial publishers now publish full OA journals, not just hybrid OA journals.  I put this one last because I want to say the most about it.

In October 2008, an ALPSP survey showed that the percentage of publishers offering hybrid OA journals had grown from 9% to 30% in the previous three years.

I haven't seen more recent figures, but I'm sure the hybrid curve has continued to rise.  What's notable here is the rise of a second curve for full-OA or non-hybrid journals.  I haven't seen figures for the spread of this model across journal publishers in general.  But Elsevier, Springer, and Wiley-Blackwell, the three largest journal publishers, now all publish full-OA journals.

Elsevier has had hybrid OA journals since May 2006.  But in September 2010, with no fanfare, it launched its first fee-based full OA journal:  The International Journal of Surgery Case Reports (IJSCR).

IJSCR is not Elsevier's first full or non-hybrid OA journal.  But it's the first to try the business model of charging author-side publication fees.  Journals needn't charge publication fees to be OA.  (On the contrary, about 70% of OA journals charge no fees.)  But IJSCR is Elsevier's first attempt to make the fee-based business model work beyond hybrid journals.  In addition, IJSCR deposits all its contents in PubMed Central, as PLoS and BMC do.  IJSCR is libre OA, but does not permit commercial use.

Elsevier didn't draw attention to this company "first" in the launch announcement.  I did, however, in the Roundup section of SOAN for October 2010.  I expected that very quickly I'd either be corrected by someone who knew better or soon see news stories on Elsevier's new OA sally.  But when neither happened, I contacted Alicia Wise, Elsevier's Director of Universal Access.  Wise confimed that IJSCR is full OA and not hybrid OA.  It's peer-reviewed and fee-based, and it's Elsevier's first of this kind.  But it publishes case reports, not research articles, and Elsevier doesn't yet have a full OA journal of research articles.

See Elsevier's other full (non-hybrid) OA journals.

Also see Elsevier's one-year experiment with no-fee gold OA, from mid-2005 to mid-2006.

But unlike the 2005-06 trial, IJSCR is not a time-limited experiment.  As Alicia Wise put it, IJSCR is "a journal launched with a business model we believe to be sustainable, and we're behind IJSCR all the way."

Springer became the largest OA journal publisher when it bought BMC in 2008, and it remains the second-largest journal publisher overall, behind Elsevier.  When it bought BMC, all Springer journals were hybrid OA.  There was a lot of speculation at the time about whether Springer would become more like BMC or BMC more like Springer.  In June 2010, Springer launched SpringerOpen, a new line of full-OA journals.  SpringerOpen suggested that, if anything, Springer was becoming more like BMC.  As I go to press, there are 32 SpringerOpen journals, and all use homegrown licenses "identical" (Spinger's word) to CC-BY licenses.

Wiley had a hybrid OA journal program since August 2006, before its acquisition of Blackwell in November of the same year.

In September 2010, Wiley-Blackwell hired Natasha White, formerly of BMC, to be its first Associate Director of Open Access Marketing.  In the press release announcing her hire, the company revealed that "Together with a number of our society partners, we are experimenting with alternative models."

In Februrary 2011, Wiley launched Wiley Open Access, a new line of full-OA journals, mostly from learned societies.  As I go to press, there are three Wiley OA Journals, and all use CC-BY-NC licenses.

Wiley-Blackwell's first full-OA journal was Archives of Drug Information, launched in March 2007.  But the company didn't have an expandable series of OA journals until the launch of Wiley Open Access last month.

The fourth largest commercial publisher of scholarly journals is Taylor & Francis.  I haven't detected any full-OA journals from T&F yet, but if I'm overlooking something I'd love to be corrected.  If we don't count T&F's hybrid OA journal program launched in September 2006, the closest the company has come was to make one issue of the _New Review of Academic Librarianship_ full OA.  The special issue was devoted to "dissemination models in scholarly communication" and came out during OA Week 2010.  But the journal didn't convert to OA and soon reverted to TA.

I'm calling these Elsevier, Spinger, and Wiley journals "full OA" in the sense that they are not hybrid OA.  They provide OA to all their articles, not just those for which the author has exercised an OA option.  What's notable is the step beyond hybrid OA, nearly in unison, by the world's three largest journal publishers.  Two of these publishers offer expandable series, not isolated titles.  TA titles are not systematically converting to OA at any of these publishers, but all three publishers are supplemmenting their firsthand experience of hybrid gold OA with firsthand experience of full gold OA.

This matters because hybrid OA journals do little or nothing to help researchers, libraries, or publishers.  The recent, very comprehensive Study of Open Access Publishing (SOAP) showed that their average rate of author uptake at hybrid journals is just 2%.

The chief virtue of hybrid OA journals is that they give publishers some firsthand experience with the economics and logistics of OA publishing.  But the economics are artificial, since hybrid OA publishers have no incentive to increase author uptake and make the models succeed.  The publishers always have subscriptions to fall back upon.  Moreover, an overwhelming majority of full-OA journals charge no publication fees, and an overwhelming majority of hybrid-OA journals charge fees.  The hybrid OA landscape hasn't changed much since 2007:

Some hybrid programs are good-faith, even optimistic experiments; some look grudging or cynical.  Some charge low fees and let participating authors retain copyright; some charge high fees and still demand the copyright.  Some provide OA to the full published edition, some only to an enfeebled truncation stripped of active links.  Some reduce subscription prices in proportion to author uptake; some use a frank "double charge" business model.  Some let authors deposit articles in repositories independent of the publisher; some allow free online access only from sites they control.  Some don't try to meddle with author funding contracts; some charge authors who want to comply with prior funding obligations.  Some continue to allow immediate self-archiving for non-participating authors; some impose embargoes or fees on self-archiving.  The positive spin on this wide range of policies is that publishers are fully exploring the hybrid journal space for variations that satisfy their constraints.  I do think that's good even if I also think some current models are cynical or useless.  To make the same point without the spin, some want to encourage author uptake and some don't seem to care as long as they have subscriptions.

In 2006, I put it this way:  "The big question for [hybrid OA] publishers is whether they want author uptake badly enough to make it attractive.  Will the existence of subscription revenue as a safety net kill the incentives to make the OA option succeed?"

The first significance of these new full-OA journals is that three large, experienced publishers are throwing away the safety net, for some of their jounals, and now have a real incentive to make gold OA work.  Unlike smaller OA publishers, these three can afford to fail.  But they have incentives to succeed, and the more success we have on this front the better.  Making full-OA journals succeed means making them attractive to authors.  (TA journals must appeal to authors too, but they can stay afloat when they're attractive to buyers, or even just uncancellable by buyers.)  Among fee-based OA journals, competition for authors will include fee competition.  Competition for authors should mean more added value, such as shortening turnaround times and integrating text and data files.  It should also mean less subtracted value, such as truncating good articles solely for length, locking PDFs, and freezing processable data into unprocessable images.

These journals are not "full OA" in the sense that they are as open as they could be.  Only the SpringerOpen journals use an equivalent of CC-BY, the least restrictive open license and the one recommended by the Open Access Scholarly Publishers Association, the SPARC Europe Seal of Approval program, and SURF.  The Elsevier and Wiley journals restrict commercial use.  When authors are better educated about copyright and the differences among open licenses (sadly, a long slog), then competition for authors will eventually include licensing competition as well, pressuring gratis OA journals to shift to libre OA, and pressuring publishers to loosen or drop usage restrictions beyond attribution. 

The second significance of these three steps is simply the sea change they represent.  The rise and maturation of gold OA does not require the participation of the commercial giants; on the contrary, even if they move further into this space, they'll be playing catch-up for years with leaner, meaner, dedicated-OA publishers.  But these three publishers, Elsevier and Wiley in particular, have come a long way to reach this point.  Elsevier and Wiley were part of the small group, with the American Chemical Society and the Professional/Scholarly Publishing division of the Association of American Publishers, to launch PRISM in August 2007.  PRISM ("Partnership for Research Integrity in Science & Medicine") was the execrable and dishonest PR campaign which described green OA as "censorship" and gold OA as "junk science".

I'm not criticizing these companies for changing their position.  On the contrary, I'm congratulating them for it.

In October 2003, Sami Kassab at the French financial firm of B.N.P. Paribas predicted that yesterday's giant TA publishers would become tomorrow's giant OA publishers.  OA wouldn't force them out of business, but would force them to convert to OA and accept lower profit margins.  "We believe there is a 50% risk of a change in the model ten years from now.  We see commercial publishers retaining their market share but with less pricing power...."

There are about 2.5 years left on Kassab's prediction, apart from his 50% uncertainty.  I don't expect to see full conversions in the next 2.5 years.  But we're already seeing steps that few people other than Kassab were contemplating in 2003. 

BTW, I'm trying not to voice an opinion on whether fulfillment of Kassab's prediction would be good or bad for OA.  That's another topic for another day.


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