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Open-Access Publication and Scientific Journals 

Open-Access Publication and Scientific Journals

Ethical and Legal Considerations

Annette Flanagin

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Open-Access Publication and Scientific Journals

The open-access movement began in the late 1990s following the proliferation of online journals available via the Internet (versions of print journals and journals published only online), the inability of declining library budgets to keep pace with increases in the numbers of journals and rising subscription prices, and demands to reduce the information gap between developed and developing countries.22-25 Broadly defined, open access is the free and unrestricted online availability of content. (In the context of biomedical publication, this refers primarily to research articles.) Strictly applied, open-access publishing means that users can freely read, download, copy, distribute, print, search, or link to full text of articles provided that authors are properly acknowledged and cited.26 There are 2 types of open access: self-archiving and open-access publishing.

Self-archiving is the deposition of content in an open archive, sometimes before formal publication. Archives may be subject based, such as the physics preprint ArXiv, which was launched in 1991, or PubMedCentral, which focuses on biomedical and life sciences. In addition, a growing number of institutions, such as universities, have archives or institutional repositories. The Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s DSpace and the University of California’s eScholarship Repository are among the first and best-known examples of such archiving initiatives. Concerns have been expressed that self-archiving may pose problems for version and quality control (eg, users may not understand the difference between an article that has not undergone peer review, revision, and editing and one that has undergone such measures to improve quality) and that usage of self-archived versions of articles will result in declining use of published versions of articles and journals, or even the demise of journals.27-29

In open-access publishing, all or part of a journal is freely open to unrestricted use. The funding model for open-access publishing requires author, institution, or funding agency payments, and/or a subsidy from the owner or publisher, and/or external grants. This is commonly referred to as an “author pays” publishing model (or “funder pays” in the event the research funder sets aside monies explicitly for such use). This financial model differs from the traditional journal publishing model, in which publication and sustainability of the publishing enterprise are based on revenue from paid subscriptions, advertising, licensing, royalties, reprints, and other forms of revenue.

Although a few journals were published in an open-access model before the 1990s, the majority began publication under that model after the year 2000, when BioMed Central launched a series of open-access journals that were peer reviewed but did not undergo editorial revision and editing.23 In 2006, BioMed Central journals' article processing fees charged to authors ranged from $615 to $1775 per published article.30 In addition, individual organizations, such as universities, may purchase a membership at a significantly greater collective fee, allowing their author-employees or affiliated authors to publish in BioMed Central journals without having to pay the initial author publication fees.

In 2003, the Public Library of Science (PLoS) launched its first in a series of open-access journals with an initial $9 million grant from the Moore Foundation.31 The PLoS journals are peer reviewed and do provide editorial revision and editing. In addition to grants, journal operations are funded by an author-pays model: in 2003 the author fee was $1500 to publish an article; in 2006 the fee was raised to $2500. Other journals experimenting with author-pay models had publication or processing fees that ranged from $500 to $3500 in 2006, with most ranging from $2000 to $3000.29 According to the Lund University Directory of Open Access Journals, in 2006 there were 2345 strictly interpreted open-access, peer-reviewed scientific and scholarly journals; 326 of these were health science journals, including 206 in medicine.32

Supporters of complete open-access publishing cite the benefits of widespread dissemination of research: universal access, enhanced global collaboration, improved visibility of researchers' work, and the belief that open-access articles will be cited more frequently than restricted-access articles.26,31,33-35 Opponents express concern about the quality of literature published in a system that may favor those who pay, fairness of the author-pays model for researchers with limited funds (eg, those in developing countries or who lack access to funding from government agencies or industry), and the risks to the financial stability of journals with business models based on more diversified, traditional sources of revenue and to their owners.27-29

Coupled with the open-access movement in 2005, funding agencies (eg, NIH and the Wellcome Trust) began requesting or requiring funded investigators to permit articles describing results of their funded research to be posted on publicly accessible archives (such as PubMedCentral) in 2005.34,35 Negotiations between these agencies and publishers resulted in another form of open access: delayed open access. In this model, which has been in wide use by scientific and biomedical publishers (especially those owned by not-for-profit professional socities) for several years, content is made freely available after a defined interval of time, such as 6 months, 1 year, or 2 years. The interval, which may be influenced by the frequency of journal publication, is intended to protect subscription, licensing, advertising, and other traditional forms of journal revenue.

A number of journals are experimenting with types of open access (eg, permitting self-archiving on authors' individual or institutional archives, open access for only some content, delayed open access, open access if author pays publication or processing fees, or giving authors a choice of free delayed access or immediate access if they choose to pay a publication fee). Open-access publishing models are evolving, and debate continues over which models might be sustainable in the long term. Each model has advantages and disadvantages. A combination of models may be the most appropriate for journals seeking to balance the advantages of open access with the financial requirements of sustainable publication and ongoing maintenance of a journal’s website.

In addition, journals are developing and experimenting with different publication licenses in lieu of standard copyright transfers to permit various access and usage rights. According to the Association of Learned and Professional Scholarly Publishers (ALPSP), 61% of surveyed publishers required authors to transfer copyright for publication in 2005 (down from 81% in 2003); 17% required a publication license from authors; 21% initially requested copyright transfer but accepted a license; and 3% did not require any formal agreement.36 (See also 5.6.5, Copyright Assignment or License.)

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