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.”
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