Accompanied with much fanfare, a media event, and an embargoed news release, the Howard Hughes Medical Institute, the Max Planck Society and the Wellcome Trust announced plans today to launch a top-tier open access journal in 2012 for biomedical and life sciences research.

The journal, however, lacks a name, an editor-in-chief, and even a business model.

Still, the journal is intended to attract the “very best research” and “make highly significant contributions that will extend the boundaries of scientific knowledge.”

How they plan to do this is unclear. And the process by which articles are selected, vetted and published seems neither groundbreaking nor transformative. Indeed, the process very much resembles that of BMJ Open, with a few missing pieces:

The journal will employ an open and transparent peer review process in which papers will be accepted or rejected as rapidly as possible, generally with only one round of revisions, and with limited need for modifications or additional experiments. For transparency, reviewers’ comments will be published anonymously.

Sifting through cliches like, “This will be a journal for scientists edited by scientists,” it is hard to figure what this new journal will provide that other open access journals lack and what niche this journal is intended to fill.

Fortunately, the journal will be supported with the financial support of its sponsors, ensuring a successful launch. Beyond that, a long-term business model will need to be determined:

The three organisations have made a commitment to cover the costs of launching the journal to ensure its success. The long-term business model will be developed by the incoming Editor-in-Chief and the team they build.

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Phil Davis

Phil Davis

Phil Davis is a publishing consultant specializing in the statistical analysis of citation, readership, publication and survey data. He has a Ph.D. in science communication from Cornell University (2010), extensive experience as a science librarian (1995-2006) and was trained as a life scientist.


26 Thoughts on "Top-Tier Open Access Journal Arrives with Fanfare, Few Details"

You are missing several points. These people don’t need a business model because they have pots of money. This is about putting Nature, Science, Cell, and the “failed postdocs who edit them” (as they see it) to the sword. They are unashamed elitists who, good for them, want to make open access universal as it surely will be soon.

Leaving the “business model” to be determined by the editor-in-chief is like leaving the management of a hospital to a staff doctor and the operation of an airline to an aeronautical engineer–not necessarily the best way to get the best model!

Here’s a potential business model. If you have research funding from HHMI, Max Planck or Wellcome trust, you can publish here open access and for free. That way we don’t have to add publication costs to grants. Even if the journal itself runs at a loss, this would be cheaper for these grant bodies in the long run. Wouldn’t it?

Details, details.
According to a piece in Science, the new journal:

1. Will not employ professional editors, but rely on academic scientists
2. Will not charge author fees “for several years”
3. Is considering paying reviewers

The raison d’etre for this new journal is very simple. Manuscripts from HHMI/MPI/WT researchers that do not find a home in the top journals will have a back-up venue that guarantees rapid publication. ‘Tis as simple as that…

This journal has the makings of becoming a great success. The great funders will lend their prestige to it, which will attract the best authors. Not charging any of their grantees for article fees is likely to become a permanent feature, and it may become a journal mainly filled with HHMI, Wellcome Trust and Max Planck funded research. They may even outsource the mechanics to a ‘traditional’ publisher, for an agreed service fee. But that this journal has the potential to change the publishing landscape materially is beyond doubt. I have a suggestion for a title: JONAS (Journal Of Nature And Science). They could even present that as an homage to the great Jonas Salk.

What Phil Davis does not seem to understand is that research itself has no business plan, and furthermore, it is fundamentally unsustainable; yet, thanks to continuing subsidies from a variety of sources, including, of course, governments, scientific research has been going on ever since the scientific revolution, i.e; at least the 16th century. In fact, it is one of the more interesting characteristics of the scientific revolution.

The second point that Phil Davis does not seem to understand is that the process of communicating scientific results to scientists is an integral part of scientific research itself, and not a side business open to various levels of exploitation ranging from reqsonable to perfectly shameless and scandalous (when I think in terms of tax-payers’ money). So, why ask sustainability from a part of scientific research, i.e. publishing scientific results, when it is not asked from the whole?

The third point that Phis Davis does not seem to understand has been well put by Stephen Davey above.

The fourth point that Phil Davis does not seem to understand is that the essential form of editing in science can come from scientists, and only from them. The rest (spelling, style, etc.) is secondary in comparison and scientists can handle sufficiently well to remove the issue. So-called “professional editors” do hardly better and, in any case, are becoming rarer and rarer as the quest for increased profits intensifies. Scientific societies have done rather well with scientiic editors for at least a century and a half.

In short, the move by important granting agencies corresponds to a needed and welcome rationalization of the communication process that will lead to great savings in science publishing (no more extraordinary profit rates as exemplified by Elsevier’s recent 36% result). Private funders are leading the way; governments should follow, at least in rich countries. In poorer counbtries, they have alreqdy begun doing so, for example with the SciELO project.

Finally, I will add that this kind of solution is exactly what the Gold road to Open Access needs: it does not discriminate against readers, and neither does it againt knowledge producers otherwise known as authors. It does not discriminate against readers and knowledge producers from poorer countries. It does not discriminate against readers and knowledge producers from poorer institutions. It finally creates the even-playing field that the great conversation of science needs in order to reach its optimal pitch.

JCG, what you may not understand is that those of us who may not share your views nevertheless understand them. The vision of Grantors taking over scholarly publishing is certainly worth arguing about, because it has a lot of potential drawbacks, such as favoring one’s grantees. One can argue that journals should be independent of funding, not house organs of funding agencies. But in any case attacking those who may not share your opinion is not the best way to proceed.

With regard to favouring one’s own grantees, that can happen of course. A few questions:

1) Wouldn’t these granting agencies be able to avoid unfair advantages to grantees in the same way as major scientific societies are managing to do that with regard to their members?

2) Is a house organ of a consortium of granting bodies by definition a bad idea (as long as proper peer review takes place, see Q1)?

In most scientific societies membership merely means subscribing to the journal. I am a member of AAAS because I subscribe to Sciencemag. It is not the same thing as betting on someone by giving them a million dollars.

Regarding #2, many grantors have house organs, including websites, where they hype their successes, which is precisely the problem. (Grantors also compete for funds.) If they want to run a journal for their grantees that too is fine, call it the Journal of Our Grantees or JOG. But if they want to run a community-wide competition journal then their grantees should probably be excluded by conflict of interest rules.

One must assume that if the Wellcome Charity develops a journal and wants to make it credible to all scientists, it will have to exercise objective peer review carried out at arms lenth. Again, the societies’ example provides an interesting and reassuring model in this regard.

Thinking that objectivity is impossible in such circumstances is speculation at best.

The risks accompanying a grantor selecting the best papers among those of its grantees are minimal. Actually, a system of science where publishing would be taken over by grantors would be both rational and optimal. Those subsidizing scientific research would finally subsidize its whole life cycle, including publishing.

Let us remember that the grantees of the Wellcome, Hughes, NIH, etc. are selected by peer review. The published articles would also be selected by peer review. So quality would depend on the quality of peer review, not the fact that the grantor opens a journal to its grantees or not. Furthermore, those without grants could also be allowed to submit articles, if only because journals like to have good authors. Various policies will appear if this trend develops, and they do not have to be strictly exclusive.

Finally, let us remember that scientific journals are there to help the great conversation of science, not the reverse!

We simply draw the line between criticism and attack differently. I was being critical. Period.

Right, so long as the author is not being polemical (e.g; “sifting through cliches [sic] like…”!

Research may not need a business plan, but publication does and always has. Read the history of publishing and you will understand this much. Whether it came in the form of patronage (a model that seems to be what these funding bodies have in mind) or via some market mechanism or some combination thereof (like the 18th-century version of “subscription”), publishing did not just occur out of the blue. It is not even clear that these funders will indefinitely support the new journal’s operation. Like most foundations, they seem ready to provide startup funding but then want the journal to find a way of sustaining itself over time financially without further subsidy. What else could it mean that the “long-term business model will be developed by the incoming Editor-in-Chief”?

Research generally does require a business plan. If you’re running a lab that spends a great deal more than it takes in, odds are you won’t be running a lab for very long.

Procuring one’s own funding and running on a budget are pretty general requirements for an academic lab. It’s something that we don’t really train professors to do–they’re graduate students/postdocs and they learn how to do research (and sometimes how to teach), but when they get a job as a Principal Investigator, suddenly they’re thrust into the role of “business manager” as they’re now in charge of hiring, firing, managing personnel issues and running the financial aspects of a laboratory.

An important part of the plan is that editors and reviewers will be paid. Science publishing has been so profitable because all the value is added by the academic community, usually without payment. Elsevier and other publishers, including societies, are subsidised to a huge extent by universities and funders. It’s time to end that.

Declan Butler posts a very good critique of the press event, and highlights a lack of clarity in the details and apparent contradictions in the promises made. He also points out how the new journal–offered for several years without author-side fees–may undermine some of the successful ventures to date:

[Their] decision not to charge author fees, at least in the journal’s short and medium term, in fact could risk setting back the cause of open-access publishing by undermining — through what might be considered unfair competition — economically successful open access publishers such as PLoS and Biomed Central, which charge author fees often in the region of thousands of dollars per article. High profile initiatives are all very well, but if scientific publishing is to be improved, it requires business models proven to be both workable (and scaleable, so to be of relevance of science publishing more generally), and firm evidence that the proposed untested and unproven model is better (and not worse) than the existing system, and also tangibly solves real problems.

The Impact Factor of the journal you publish in is still seen as a major factor by grant reviewers and granting organisations, including these three. If a decision on a grant is being made by one of these three institutions, will a publication in their own new journal ‘count’ the same as a paper in Nature or Science – after all the grantors’ ambition is to publish only the best science, so wouldn’t it make sense to trust the value of their own journal? Say, one of these 3 organisations has to decide between two grant applications; let’s assume, everything else being equal, one applicant has 2 papers in Nature, the other 2 papers in the new OA journal. Who will get the grant? Will a publication in the new journal be regarded the same as publications in any other new, ambitious journal without IF?

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