iPubSci: An Alternative to Unaffordable Science Journals


Xconomy Seattle — 

Advances in the biomedical sciences are highly dependent upon researchers having a clear understanding of the current state of knowledge. This information is primarily acquired by having access to the scientific literature via professional journals and, less commonly, books.

Unfortunately, this body of literature has not only expanded greatly over the past few decades, most of it has become increasingly unaffordable to scientists. I’ve written about this problem in several previous articles, and the responses I’ve received reflect widespread frustration among scientists and librarians with the current system. Excessive pay-per-view article charges combined with exorbitant journal costs have forced scientists at many of our nation’s biotechnology and medical device companies to either do without, download articles at nearby medical libraries, request PDF reprints of current articles from the authors, or illegally “borrow” access to university collections. These high costs have effectively limited access to the scientific literature for thousands of scientists at startup or even medium size biotech companies that lack deep pockets.

Not being able to readily access new or even legacy information retards the pace of scientific advancement and is detrimental to society. According to Margaret Mead “We are continually faced with great opportunities which are brilliantly disguised as unsolvable problems.” I’d like to put forth a radical proposal for solving the problem of a lack of journal access and affordability: the creation of a new publishing model, iPubSci, which is based on a concept similar to Apple’s iTunes. iPubSci would meld two already well-designed types of programs in search (PubMed) and the sale of individual pieces of content (iTunes). This concept arose out of numerous brainstorming sessions with Seattle biotech librarian Molly Bernard.

How would an iPubSci application function? Finding articles could be done using a search tool virtually identical to the one now employed by PubMed. The search results would be provided in a manner that would blend the best features of PubMed and iTunes. Search results would list articles according to the appropriate relevancy; pointing a cursor over any particular record would bring up a floating window showing the abstract of the article. This is directly analogous to hearing a snippet of music by clicking on a song in iTunes. Next to each article would be the download price of the PDF file. Paying for articles could be done, as in iTunes, via password protected credit card numbers or pre-paid accounts.

You could look for scientific papers based on keywords, subject, authors’ names, article titles, academic institutions, etc. and get a list of articles matching the search criteria. If you were still interested in acquiring the article after reading the abstract, you could purchase and instantly download the PDF file to your computer or mobile device. I’ll even suggest a pricing structure: articles published in open access journals (or residing in PubMed Central) would be free. In the case of for-profit journals, articles more than two years old: $0.29; less than two years old: $0.49; articles less than six months old would be $1.29. Make it easy, affordable, and legal for users to get the articles, and scientists and other interested individuals will jump on board.

For those of you who have looked into downloading single research articles, you know that the going rate at many journals is in the $30-$35 range. How could the price drop as low as indicated above? Keep in mind that, unlike the music business model, none of the money obtained by article sales will actually be going to the “artists,” who in this case are the authors. It will all go to the iPubSci developer and the publishers. If a new journal issue contains, for example, 50 articles, then buying all of them would cost $64.50, a pretty high price for a single journal issue. As with iTunes, users could get a price break on buying an entire issue of a journal. However, it is much more likely that individual article sales will garner virtually the entire market. That’s because science has become so specialized, hardly anyone would want to read every single article, or even a majority of articles, in one particular journal issue. An exception might be a special review issue that is focused on a single topic.

Why is it that journal costs are so high? For too long, scientific journal publishers have enjoyed a virtual monopoly over their content. The publisher’s profit margins, as the British newspaper The Guardian recently reported, are enormous (in the range of 40 percent). How are such lofty profits margins achieved? There are three primary reasons. First and foremost are the enormous subscription costs of the journals themselves, many of which charge libraries thousands of dollars per year. The second reason for their colossal profits is that, unlike most books and magazines, the content they publish is acquired for free. Scientists don’t get paid for writing journal articles, and peer review and editing of many of these articles is often done at no cost to the publishers as well. An analysis of the industry by Deutsche Bank suggested that “the publisher adds relatively little value to the publishing process.” Finally, the journals have no real competition for any particular periodical. If you want that particular title, you must buy it from the publisher; there are no other sources available.

The economics of open access journals are complex and evolving. A detailed comparison of open access publishing vs. monopoly journals in 2004 laid the groundwork for defining some of the economic factors at work in the science publishing industry. The study revealed that for-profit journals are hugely expensive, on either a cost-per-page or cost-per-citation basis, compared to non-profit journals. Similarly, an analysis of the costs and benefits of library site licenses representing for-profit academic journals revealed that these are not always beneficial to the scientific community compared to individual subscriptions. Biotechs are at a significant disadvantage compared to universities in negotiating these site licenses because they supply significantly fewer readers; this makes it that much harder for them to afford this type of journal access.

The number of open access science journals is still relatively small, but growing at a rate of about 15 percent per year. This far surpasses the 3.5 percent growth rate of subscription journals. Open access journals may eventually supplant the current standard paid subscription journal model. A consortium of three top science-funding organizations has plans to launch an open access journal. Even the Nature Publishing Group has proposed adding an open access journal, Scientific Reports (SR), to its repertoire of other publications. Journals differ, however, in how they allow use of their content. As Sandy Thatcher, one of the founders of the Public Library of Science (PLoS) pointed out, “SR is using a creative commons license that permits only non-commercial reuse of their content, whereas PLoS and BMC impose no such restriction. This, rather ironically, means that neither PLoS nor BMC can reuse content published in SR. This should be a big non-starter for anyone who really cares about open access”.

So what’s the biggest challenge to putting together my vision of iPubSci? Getting the publishers to sign up and make their content available. Disassembling what is essentially a giant, highly profitable cartel run by a small number of companies is not a trivial undertaking. However, this task may not be as difficult as it would first appear. After all, Apple was able to get Sony, Warner Music, EMI, and many other music labels to agree to provide the musical content that populates iTunes. They then expanded this effort to get companies like MGM, Disney, Lionsgate, and Paramount to provide film and TV content as well. These organizations all recognized the changes taking place in their industry, and they made the decision that their future was tied into a different sales and distribution system. Journal publishers will hopefully come to the same conclusion.

Why would the various publishers of science journals agree to a common pricing structure and to make their content available via iPubSci? They have a great opportunity here to make money on articles that they are currently not getting paid for because they are being accessed by “other” means, as described above. It’s time for an innovative, well-funded, entrepreneurial organization (Apple would be an obvious choice, but Google or Microsoft could do this as well) to strike a deal with Elsevier, Springer, Wiley, Nature, and other publishers to provide the scientific literature that they hold in trust to the worldwide research community. The organization that builds iPubSci needs to be one with considerable clout and deep financial resources. Reaching this agreement with the publishers is obviously critical in getting this system to work. I’d be happy to work with any company that is committed to fulfilling this vision.

As a business, the concept behind iPubSci has one significant advantage over iTunes: for most of the content provided, there is simply no other way to obtain it. Those wanting to be entertained by Beyonce’s latest hit can purchase it from iTunes, but they can also buy it from Amazon or Google, pick up the CD at their local music store or check it out from the neighborhood library, or view the video for free on YouTube. In contrast, there are no other outlets (beyond academic libraries) for the majority of materials to be offered via iPubSci, aside from purchasing the journals themselves at their currently exorbitant rates.

Why would journal publishers currently enjoying a monopoly want to switch over to such a system? Two forces are acting against them. The first is the rise of free open access journals, as detailed above. Secondly, digital content lives in a world, according to Free: The Future of a Radical Price by Chris Anderson, where prices of bits are dropping rapidly. The conversion of journals from physical objects to PDF files enables this transformative process. By making the downloading of science documents relatively inexpensive and easy, the creator of iPubSci will add many more customers to their services. Apple was able to lure large numbers of customers away from free (but illegal) file sharing sites by making iTunes easy to use, the content reasonably priced, and enabling users to download only the exact content that they wanted. The same thing can happen with the scientific literature, where users may only want to read two articles out of 25 in a particular journal issue. Why should they be forced to buy the other 23 articles that they’re not interested in?

Journal publishers can still make additional money on top of the income they will earn from iPubSci. Many of them offer other value-added products that make it easier to gather or collate information from various newsletters and databases. For example, Elsevier sells access to its Scopus and Inteleos databases along with a wide variety of newsletters. This “value-added” or freemium model is used in a number of other businesses to generate revenue when another product is provided at either no cost or at a very low price. With the current scientific journal-publishing model, however, you pay a high price for both the journals themselves as well as the value-added extra content.

Scientists contribute to the “lack of affordable journal access” problem by choosing where they will publish their articles without considering the affordability of that journal to departmental, campus, or corporate libraries. The key criteria traditionally used by researchers in choosing where to publish are the perceived prestige of the journal and the speed with which their article can be published. This is understandable since publishing has long been considered one of the most important measures (publish or perish!) employed in academic tenure decisions. Consider publishing your articles in open access journals. Doing so will put additional pressure on for-profit journal publishers to make a deal and support the iPubSci model.

Funding agencies also impose some conditions on where authors choose to publish their work, such as the NIH Public Access Policy. Investigators that are NIH funded must submit their final peer-reviewed manuscripts to PubMed Central upon acceptance for publication. The aim is to ensure that the public has access to the published results of NIH funded research no later than 12 months after publication. A similar program is in place in the UK. Articles accessed via iPubSci would meet these same criteria, as put forth above, if the NIH also funded them.

Publishing research articles is a complex enterprise that encompasses the domains of science, business, copyright, distribution, and open access (among others). The purpose of this commentary was not to solve all of the problems that currently confront both publishers and consumers of scholarly articles. Rather, the intent was to provide a new model framework, iPubSci, which might be used to address a number of the outstanding issues. It is clearly designed to address the two that I think concern scientists the most: access and affordability.

Defining a new path forward is often the first step in solving a problem. If you seek a change in the status quo, then make your thoughts heard. Share this article with your colleagues, the publishers, your librarians, and entrepreneurial organizations (especially those that I suggested above) to let them know that the time for change has come. Submit your papers to open access journals. If you support the concept of iPubSci, please “Like” it and leave a comment on our Facebook page. I’ve even reserved a placeholder website for hosting iPubSci. Let me turn to Margaret Mead once more for a final thought: “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.”

Stewart Lyman is Owner and Manager of Lyman BioPharma Consulting LLC in Seattle. He provides strategic advice to clients on their research programs, collaboration management issues, as well as preclinical data reviews. Follow @

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14 responses to “iPubSci: An Alternative to Unaffordable Science Journals”

  1. Jan W. Schoones says:

    iPubSci is not really needed – most people who need access have access, either through a subscription, license, or a library (which is a kind of an iPubSci if you look at its document delivery services).

  2. Riccardo Caruso says:

    I agree with Stewart that we are rapidly moving toward free access to information and that the scientific community (especially the portion with less means) would benefit from it. However, rather than a low cost model, I would rather encourage an open source type of platform with exceptional search features and free access to content. Relevance of the publishing platform and authority (of authors) would need to be made safe and regulated to ensure the interest of the scientific community and the willingness of authors and moderators to redirect their free efforts toward such a model.

  3. Luminar Prime says:

    With the entertainment industry, an important factor in convincing publishers to adopt the iTunes distribution format was the presence of illicit “pirate” competition. It became painfully obvious that the current practice of bundling several products into an “album” was driving customers to the black market. For example, I had to buy a two-disc set in the early 2000’s just to get the Outkast song “Hey Ya,” and was deeply disappointed by all the other tracks on the disks. Now that I can buy songs absentmindedly on iTunes, I spend about ten times more on music now than I did previously.

    Also, Apple can already distribute magazines via iTunes, so they’d probably be able to convince publishers to jump on board with their already successful e-distribution infrastructure. Amazon would be happy to do this as well.

    Know what would be really awesome? Making it so customers can buy the cited and citing articles while reading the purchased one. I would quickly go broke with that.

  4. A couple of points. I’m wondering if you might be looking for a solution to a problem that may already be taking care of itself. I think this is an important discussion to have – access to research papers. I’m just not yet convinced that it will be needed if market forces are allowed to play out.

    First, if one is a student at UW – and even a 1 credit student counts – one has free access to the UW journal list. Mark Minie teaches just such a class at the UW extension. This could give a biotech company access right now to a huge number of journals for a nominal price. No need for iPubSci for that.

    Secondly, market forces may take care of the ‘problem.’

    For profit journals survive because of scarcity. In the old days, with only so many pages that could be published, they could maintain a large stock of great papers that require large prices for access. But in a digital age, many journals – particularly highly regarded ones published by learned societies – no longer suffer from this disadvantage. This reduces the number of worthwhile articles that are available for commercial publications to gather.

    In addition, the authors of papers want as many people to see their work as possible. I would expect that many would welcome the chance to get their paper in a highly regarded society journal that now has extra pages to fill. And they will push that society – as members – to open up access. If I publish in PNAS, I can publish as an Open Access article or as a normal one – but everyone gets to read the article after 6 months. And even in those 6 months, the cost is pretty nominal. That is better than having it embargoed forever at a high price.

    Finally, the Open Access model scales much better than the subscription model. Let’s say a journal wants to increase the number of pages it publishes a month. In the current model, it has to publish the pages and hope it can increase subscription numbers to pay for it. In a subscription model, it only gets paid AFTER it publishes. Few subscribe to a journal before it is published.

    But since the papers already pay for themselves BEFORE publication in the Open Access model, adding 100 pages really adds little cost to the bottom line. The publisher is essentially paid before publication.

    Taken together, I see that Open access approaches will drive down the access to articles, simply by market forces. In the interim, getting access by joining the journal club may work well. Heck, even simply emailing the authors is pretty cheap.

  5. Here is the link to the UW Journal Club

  6. Humm. Links used to work. And I can’t seem to edit.

    Oh. well. Google “Journal Research Seminar Course” and you will find it. At the UW Professional and Continuing Education site.

  7. Lance Stewart says:

    This is a great idea. If I’m at Amazon, and want to take a run at Apple. This is the way to do it. Seattle should take the lead !

  8. Thanks to all of you for your comments. Let me respond to some of the issues raised:

    Jan Schoones – I have heard from scientists (and their librarians) all over the US that affordable access to the scientific literature is a serious problem. There is a full page of links on the iPubSci Website that document problems with the affordability of the current journal system. One story that I heard from two separate people is of biotech companies that hired college students as “interns” for the primary purpose of using their access to their campus libraries to download articles for the company scientists. One can understand why some companies have taken this “Robin Hood” approach, but I doubt this is legal. I would love to hear how the small and middle size biotech companies in your area have achieved affordable access to the scientific literature; please share this info with Xconomy readers.

    Riccardo Caruso – The question I have for the open source model that you propose is how is it going to get paid for? What incentive would the publishers of for-profit journals have to add their articles (which represent about 2/3 of the articles in PubMed) to this database? While it may appear to be free to the end user, open access publishing still requires the authors to pay for their articles. My friends in academia tell me that the going rate per article is around $2000. With the current funding constraints on grants, this expense is a concern to many. No matter which model is chosen, there needs to be some way to pay for access to the scientific literature. I don’t think anyone questions the value of paying for Time magazine or Consumer Reports; there is nothing inherently wrong with paying for journals. They must be paid for in some way; the problem with the for-profit journals is that they are unaffordable to many. Who would pay $2500 a year for a subscription to Vogue or Forbes? The solution I came up with, iPubSci, meets three key criteria: easy to use, legal, and affordable.

    Luminar Prime – Apple is clearly in the prime spot to deliver on the promise of iPubSci. And you have seen one of the many benefits of such a system: the ability to easily buy articles within articles. One other feature that would be easy to build in: click on a Recommendation box, and every time you buy an article, you would get a message saying “Previous purchasers of this article looked at/downloaded the following related articles”. This would enhance the ability to keep track of papers you might have missed. Numerous other features found in iTunes could be incorporated into iPubSci to enhance the user experience.

    Richard Gayle – Mark Minie has done a marvelous job of getting access to the U. Washington journal collection for those who join his journal club. His efforts meet the criteria of being legal and affordable. However, I would not characterize the system in place as easy to use. I believe less than 10 people have signed up for this, and there is a limit of how many people can join. This may simply reflect issues with failure to publicize the approach properly, and Mark has indicated that the potential is there to scale this up in the future. However, I am not sure that everyone would be interested in participating in a journal club format in order to gain access to the library collection. I also doubt that the UW is interested in providing access to biotech scientists in San Diego, Research Triangle Park, or Tuscaloosa; this wouldn’t help the scientists in other areas. There is also the hassle of signing up for the program with the university. Anyone can download iTunes, set up a personal account, and be buying music or movies in under 15 minutes. iPubSci could do the same thing.

    While open access journals are growing at a faster rate than for-profit journals, they still represent a tiny share of the market. I’m not sure how long you are willing to wait until open access becomes the standard, but in the meantime (and I think this will take at least a decade, if not several) there are a lot of scientists who will be missing access to the literature. As for the scarcity issue, I don’t see that journals like Nature and Cell are unable to compete for quality articles that still need to be paid for. What would be the solution to lower the cost of legacy articles, like the ones you and I published 15 years ago and for which the publishers still want $30-$35/each? Finally, emailing the authors for pdf reprints is, as you point out, a very handy way to get articles; I use it all the time. I would love to have someone familiar with copyright law weigh in on this subject and let us know if this is actually legal. iPubSci handles each of these issues and could be adapted in a relatively short time. I think it would be widely used.

    Lance Stewart – Amazon is indeed another company that could take on the challenge of building iPubSci. They certainly have a strong interest/background in publishing and distribution issues. Only they can determine if such a project would be too far away from their core business to make it worth pursuing. It would be great to keep this in Seattle!

  9. Jeff Sfakianos says:

    Great Article! Change must come.

    Some of the comments are absolutely right. Libraries and Companies provide these articles to their employees for “free”. Yet, try starting a company on your own. You’ll suddenly realize how much it costs to stay current in your research of science.

    Couldn’t the publishing companies turn this into a profit? Why couldn’t they increase the ad efficacy by allowing iPubSci to track users’ readings and then tag the pdf’s with directed ads? I have never purchased products because of an ad in Science, Nature, or Cell. If I downloaded several articles on next-gen sequencing, then it might be obvious that I would seriously consider an ad tossed onto my next pdf download by 424 and/or their competitors.

    I hope this takes off Stewart!

  10. Rather than ipubget, I would suggest that you join the movement for full open access to scholarly works. There are now more than 7,000 fully open access peer-reviewed scholarly journals listed in the Directory of Open Acccess Journals http://www.doaj.org (growing by 4 titles per day), and over 30 million items can be retrieved through a search of the Bielefeld Academic Search Engine http://base.ub.uni-bielefeld.de/en/ (growing by millions of articles each quarter). About 20% of the world’s medical literature is now freely available from PubMed within 2 years of publication, and the number of journals contributing all articles immediately on publication is growing rapidly. Usage-based pricing like ipubget is in my opinion a particularly bad model for scholarship, as I discuss in depth in this book chapter http://summit.sfu.ca/item/439

  11. Thanks for your input Heather. I did suggest in putting forth the idea of iPubSci that scientists should indeed publish their articles in open access journals. And I agree that there is a lot of material available at the sources you cite. I have been hearing a similar response to yours from most people in the open access movement. Unfortunately, your suggestion provides no solution for scientists who want and need affordable access NOW to the millions and millions of articles that the for-profit publishers have locked away in their archives, and for which they are currently charging $30-35 per article. Should they wait the decade or two until open access has taken over to get their hands on these articles? I have asked this specific question of open access supporters: how do we solve this problem of a lack of access to legacy articles? The responses range from some vague plans to share what is available and deposit it somewhere that it would be accessible, to essentially some ill-defined idea of stealing these papers and giving them away. It is the Robin Hood approach, but without a clear plan, and as Antoine de Saint Exupery nicely put it “A goal without a plan is just a wish”. I get it that many people despise, hate, and loathe the for-profit publishers for their excessive journal costs and fees. The iPubSci pricing structure drops the average fee charges per paper by 99%, yet many in the open source community say they would not, in principle, support paying even a penny to buy an article. I am on board with any solution that solves the central problem that I have outlined above, which I think iPubSci could do in a very simple fashion. I am still waiting for open access supporters to provide some real world solution that can provide biotechnology scientists affordable access to the literature today, so that they can develop the medicines of tomorrow.

  12. Mario1z says:

    I’ve got an idea, which would solve everything. How about a law. Scientific and medical literature funded by taxpayer research must be disseminated (for nearly no cost…which it is) electronically for free…period. The cost of electronic publishing is an extremely small percentage of the cost of the research (million dollar grant, $10000 projected publishing cost ($2000 actual cost with all the free reviews and editing)= 0.2-1%). Legacy scientific over 10 years old is free, period. Medical literature (any) is free…period and must be funded by taxpayers (a small cost compared the cost of the medical establishement now, and would improve medical care greatly). If the publishers don’t like it, get out of the scientific publishing business and leave our scientific knowledge and legacy alone, and go sell Ann Rice novels and Madonna albums for your greedy profit. We’d be better off without them in the long run.