Open-access (OA) journals and their impact on research and the practice of medicine (created October 18, 2007

Steve Simon


This talk will cover the following topics:

This presentation was inspired by a talk by Jim Pitman at the 2007 Joint Statistics Meetings. You can find additional resources on OA at Jim Pitman’s main page at the University of California, Berkeley. Also peek at an earlier draft of this talk and a pdf file of my slides.

What is open-access (OA)?

Open-access (OA) literature is digital, online, free of charge, and free of most copyright and licensing restrictions. Source: Peter Suber, Earlham College (This link is broken)

A journal that has a restrictive copyright license but still offers its content digital, online, and free of charge is more properly characterized as Full Free Text on the Net (FUTON). Some journals provide partial support to OA/FUTON. They might:

What OA is not

OA is not public domain, because it does enforce several copyright restrictions. Restrictions vary by the journal. The most common restriction on copyright is the requirement that any user acknowledge the original source. Most OA journals allow the author to maintain the original copyright. This allows you to re-use your own work without having to get permission first.

OA is not (necessarily) low quality. OA is compatible with the peer-review process and is capable of producing research of high quality.

PLoS Biology is ranked as the most highly cited general biology journal by the Institute for Scientific Information (ISI), with an impact factor of 14.1. Source: Public Library of Science (This link is broken)

Historical perspective

There are several historical events which have laid the way for the OA publication.

  1. The Internet (1974). The Internet and especially the World Wide Web have greatly reduced the costs of publishing and disseminating information. I don’t have a good quote or source on this, but hopefully, my audience will take it on faith. I’m including a screen shot of the famous Al Gore quote about inventing the Internet.

During my service in the United States Congress, I took the initiative in creating the Internet. Al Gore. Source: CNN

  1. GNU (1984) and FSF (1985). I will show a screenshot of the main page for GNU. GNU stands for “GNU’s Not Unix” (the acronym is a mathematical play on recursion). The GNU operating system, developed under the direction of Richard Stallman, represents the first major effort to produce a major software project where the software was freely distributed and where the source code for the software was openly published. The Free Software Foundation was set up to promote similar efforts for other software projects.

  2. Cheap digital storage (1988). It’s difficult to put a date on when digital storage became cheap, but one important development that allowed cheap digital storage, was the discovery of giant magnetoresistance by Albert Fert and Peter Grunberg that won them the 2007 Nobel Prize in Physics. I am including a screenshot of the New York Times article mentioned below.

Dr. Fert, 69, and Dr. Grünberg, 68, each working independently in 1988, discovered an effect known as giant magnetoresistance, in which tiny changes in a magnetic field can produce huge changes in electrical resistance. The effect is at the heart of modern gadgets that record data, music or snippets of video as a dense magnetic patchwork of zeros and ones, which is then scanned by a small head and converted to electrical signals. Source: New York Times

  1. arXiv (1991). The development of preprint servers for papers in mathematics and physics. I will show a screenshot of the main page for arXiv. arXiv (pronounced “archive”, as if the “X” were the Greek letter Chi or Χ) is an archive for electronic preprints of scientific papers in the fields of mathematics, physics, computer science and quantitative biology which can be accessed via the Internet. In many fields of mathematics and physics, almost all scientific papers are placed on the arXiv. As of September 2007, contains over 440,000 e-prints, with roughly four thousand new e-prints added every month.

  2. SPARC (1998). The 1990’s saw a great consolidation of academic journals among a few commercial publishers. Many professional societies had decided to outsource the production of their scholarly journals. At the same time, and probably not coincidentally, prices of academic journals rose precipitously (at four times the rate of inflation, according to some calculations). There were extensive mergers in the commercial publishing sector as well, and a few publishing giants (Elsevier, Springer, Taylor & Francis, and Wiley-Blackwell) controlled most of the market. These groups started selling “bundles” which saved money compared to the individual journal subscription prices but which effectively prevented libraries from picking and choosing from a limited number of individual journal titles. Bundling helped larger libraries, but was a serious problem for smaller libraries. A lobbying group, the Scholarly Publishing and Academic Resources Coalition, was formed in 1998 to advocate changes in the scholarly publishing process and to encourage non-commercial alternatives for academic journals.

SPARC, the Scholarly Publishing and Academic Resources Coalition, is an international alliance of academic and research libraries working to correct imbalances in the scholarly publishing system. Developed by the Association of Research Libraries, SPARC has become a catalyst for change. Its pragmatic focus is to stimulate the emergence of new scholarly communication models that expand the dissemination of scholarly research and reduce financial pressures on libraries. Action by SPARC in collaboration with stakeholders – including authors, publishers, and libraries – builds on the unprecedented opportunities created by the networked digital environment to advance the conduct of scholarship. Source: SPARC website

I plan on showing the SPARC page advocating the book “Declaring Independence” which documents how the editors of an acadmic journal published by a commercial publishing company can resign from the old journal and start up a new journal which publishes at a reduced rate (or sometimes free). Peter Suber has fourteen nicely documented examples of when this has happened. Here is one of the more interesting examples.

In January 2000 (to take effect in July 2000), Henry Hagedorn resigned as editor of the Archives of Insect Biochemistry & Physiology (Wiley-Liss) in order to form the Journal of Insect Science (originally, University of Arizona library, now University of Wisconsin Library). JIS is a free online journal with no print edition. It is now supported entirely by the University of Wisconsin Memorial Library and charges no author-side fees. Source: Peter Suber, Earlham College (This link is broken)

  1. PubMed Central (2000). PubMed Central is a resource sponsored by NIH that allows journals to contribute their articles to an archive that is free and open to the public. When you are performing a PubMed search, you can set one of the search limits to restrict your search to articles that have the full free text available in PubMed Central.

PubMed Central (PMC) is the U.S. National Institutes of Health (NIH) free digital archive of biomedical and life sciences journal literature. Participation by publishers in PMC is voluntary, although participating journals must meet certain editorial and technical standards. PMC, itself, is not a publisher. Access to PMC is free and unrestricted. Source: NIH

  1. The Public Library of Science (2001). The Public Library of Science (PLoS) is a publishing project that produces several journals (including PLoS Biology, PLoS Genetics, PLoS Computational Biology, PLoS Medicine, PLoS Neglected Tropical Diseases, PLoS ONE, and PLoS Pathogens). These journals require that the authors pay a fee for submission (currently $900) and make the content available for free under an open source license. I am inlcuding a screen shot from the PLoS main page.

PLoS is a nonprofit organization of scientists and physicians committed to making the world’s scientific and medical literature a freely available public resource. Source: Public Library of Science

  1. Budapest Open Access Initiative (2001). This meeting, held in Budapest and sponsored by the Open Society Institute.

The Open Society Institute (OSI), a private operating and grantmaking foundation, aims to shape public policy to promote democratic governance, human rights, and economic, legal, and social reform. On a local level, OSI implements a range of initiatives to support the rule of law, education, public health, and independent media. At the same time, OSI works to build alliances across borders and continents on issues such as combating corruption and rights abuses.

George Soros is founder and chairman of the Open Society Institute and the Soros foundations network. He is also the chairman of Soros Fund Management LLC. Source: Soros website

The first paragraph of this initiative reads:

An old tradition and a new technology have converged to make possible an unprecedented public good. The old tradition is the willingness of scientists and scholars to publish the fruits of their research in scholarly journals without payment, for the sake of inquiry and knowledge. The new technology is the internet. The public good they make possible is the world-wide electronic distribution of the peer-reviewed journal literature and completely free and unrestricted access to it by all scientists, scholars, teachers, students, and other curious minds. Removing access barriers to this literature will accelerate research, enrich education, share the learning of the rich with the poor and the poor with the rich, make this literature as useful as it can be, and lay the foundation for uniting humanity in a common intellectual conversation and quest for knowledge. Source: Soros website

  1. Ancestor (2007). Ancestor is a book that was first published as a series of 19 podcasts. The author, Scott Sigler, then produced a print version which shot up to #7 on Amazon. It’s not a scholarly journal, obviously, but it shows that you can offer a free version of intellectual content on the Internet and still make money producing a print version for sale. There are lots of other examples of this. I plan to show the main page advertising the 19 podcast episodes. There are lots of academic examples of this model (free electronic version combined with commercial hardcopy), but I wanted something with a catchy graphic.

There are events in my own professional career that made me recognize the need for OA.

  1. StATS (1997). In 1997, I started experimenting with writing for the web. I took my consulting handouts (formerly in Microsoft Word format) and my class notes (formerly in Microsoft PowerPoint format) and converted them to html format and published them both internally and externally. Once I had these pages in web format, I started to link to other resources. I found lots of good links with BMJ, which then provided full free text on the web for all of its articles. BMJ had a nice series of expository articles about Statistics and Evidence-Based Medicine. Although I would reference other sources from time to time, I gradually moved towards preferentially citing sources which offered full free text on the web. I plan to show a screen shot from a recent page that includes links to the full text and PDF of a journal article.

  2. R (2000). R is a programming language that produces both simple and complex statistical analyses as well as publication quality graphics. R was developed under the GNU license. I use R regularly for advanced statistical analyses and graphs that require a lot of tweaking. I still encourage most people to use SPSS because it is a much easier package to learn. Unfortunately, there is a trade-off between ease of use and power, so you can’t use SPSS for the really complex stuff. I plan to show the want to highlight the basic documentation page for R because this is web based manual is also available in book form for $19.95.

  3. Chance News (2005). Chance News is a web-based resource for teachers that takes examples from recent newspaper articles that illustrate important concepts in Statistics and Probability. Although Chance News first started publishing in 1992, it converted in 2005 to a Wiki format that makes it easy for people like me to contribute items. I’ve written 22 articles for Chance News since 2005, and it makes my job easier when I can point to a source that offers full free text. I plan to show a screen shot from the most recent issue of Chance News.

  4. Statistical Evidence (2006). I published a book in 2006 with Oxford University Press. This book was a compilation of a large number of web page, which illustrates again the ability to offer something for free on the web and commercially in print form. Also of note is the “On Your Own” sections of my book which asks the readers to review and comment on excerpts from the published literature. Because of the flexible copyright conditions, I chose to use Open Source for all my “Own Your Own” examples. I plant to show a shot of page 19 of my book.

Who pays the bills?

There are many economic models for publication, but the most common models are:

There are also hybrid models that combine these two approaches. Other revenues, such as advertising, apply equally well to both models.

Academic journals are “paradise” for commercial publishers.

First the public pays for most scientific research through, for example, the National Science Foundation. Then universities pay the salaries of scientists who do virtually all the writing, reviewing and editing. Universities sometimes even provide free office space to journals. Finally, authors typically sign over their copyright to publishers, who can sometimes bring in many millions of dollars a year in subscriptions for a single high-priced journal — subscriptions paid by university libraries supported by tax dollars and tuition. Source: Carol Kaesuk Yoon. Soaring Prices Spur a Revolt in Scientific Publishing. The New York Times, 1998-12-08

Who benefits from OA?

Although there is controversy over the general benefits versus costs of OA, some parties clearly benefit:

OA increases research visibility.

There are many studies that have shown this, but one of the best looked at a series of articles published between June and December 2004 in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. The researchers tracked the publications over time to see how often they were cited by other publications.

A total of 1,492 original research articles were analyzed: 212 (14.2% of all articles) were OA articles paid by the author, and 1,280 (85.8%) were non-OA articles. In April 2005 (mean 206 d after publication), 627 (49.0%) of the non-OA articles versus 78 (36.8%) of the OA articles were not cited (relative risk = 1.3 [95% Confidence Interval: 1.1–1.6]; p = 0.001). 6 mo later (mean 288 d after publication), non-OA articles were still more likely to be uncited (non-OA: 172 [13.6%], OA: 11 [5.2%]; relative risk = 2.6 [1.4–4.7]; p < 0.001). The average number of citations of OA articles was higher compared to non-OA articles (April 2005: 1.5 [SD = 2.5] versus 1.2 [SD = 2.0]; Z = 3.123; p = 0.002; October 2005: 6.4 [SD = 10.4] versus 4.5 [SD = 4.9]; Z = 4.058; p < 0.001).

Various groups have offered support for OA.

Here are some important ones.

The Medical Library Association (MLA) supports both the concept of open access to information generated from federally funded scientific and medical research and current copyright law, and maintains that having access to timely, relevant, and accurate information is vital to the health of our nation and its education and research programs. Source: MLA website

Beginning May 2, 2005, NIH-funded investigators are requested to submit to the NIH National Library of Medicine’s (NLM) PubMed Central (PMC) an electronic version of the author’s final manuscript upon acceptance for publication, resulting from research supported, in whole or in part, with direct costs from NIH. The author’s final manuscript is defined as the final version accepted for journal publication, and includes all modifications from the publishing peer review process. Source: NIH website

The Wellcome Trust requires electronic copies of any research papers that have been accepted for publication in a peer-reviewed journal, and are supported in whole or in part by Wellcome Trust funding, to be deposited into PubMed Central (PMC) or UK PMC once established, to be made freely available as soon as possible and in any event within six months of the journal publisher’s official date of final publication. Source: Wellcome website

(Note: according to WIkipedia, The Wellcome Trust is a United Kingdom-based charity established in 1936 to administer the fortune of the American-born pharmaceutical magnate Sir Henry Wellcome. Its income was derived from what was originally called Burroughs Wellcome & Co, later renamed in the UK as the Wellcome Foundation Ltd (Wellcome plc). The trust is the world’s second richest medical charity after the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, with net assets at 30 September 2006 of over £13.4 billion ($26.8 billion). The trust states its mission as being “to foster and promote research with the aim of improving human and animal health.” In addition to funding biomedical research, it supports the public understanding of science.)

The Max Planck Institute The Max Planck Institute’s mission of disseminating knowledge is only half complete if the information is not made widely and readily available to society. New possibilities of knowledge dissemination not only through the classical form but also and increasingly through the open access paradigm via the Internet have to be supported. We define open access as a comprehensive source of human knowledge and cultural heritage that has been approved by the scientific community. Source: Max Planck Institute (This link is broken)

(Note: according to Wikipedia, The Max-Planck-Gesellschaft zur Förderung der Wissenschaften e. V. (abbreviated MPG, meaning Max Planck Society for the Advancement of Science) is an independent German non-profit research organization funded by the federal and state governments. The Max Planck Society has a world-leading reputation as a science & technology research organization. In 2006, the Times Higher Education Supplement rankings[1] of non-university research institutions (based on international peer review by academics) placed the Max Planck Society as no.1 in the world for science research, and no.3 in technology research (behind AT&T and the Argonne National Laboratory in the United States).

What you can do to support OA. Jim Pitman has a list of recommendations that I have excerpted for my talk.




Source: Jim Pitman, Berkeley University


OA journals offer digital content at no cost and with limited copyright restrictions. OA journals offer benefits to medical professionals in developing countries, improve the visibility of your research. Since so much of the research endeavor is supported by taxpayer money, there is an obligation to offer this research openly and without limitation. There are many things that you can do to promote OA.