IN THE world of academic publishing, it is hard to get more traditional than Nature.
The British scholarly weekly has been reporting scientific breakthroughs since 1869. It hews to the time-honoured, and time-consuming, peer review, in which papers’ worth is judged by anonymous experts prior to publication. Fewer than one in ten submissions make the cut. Successful ones are printed on dead trees and dispatched by mail to subscribers, who pay for the privilege of reading about the latest important findings. Their authors win kudos just for getting their paper in.
Contrast this with Frontiers. The Swiss publisher has been posting online papers since 2007. Its peer reviewers, whose names are known, accept 80-90% of submissions, rejecting only those which are fatally flawed. Authors of successful manuscripts pay a publication fee, ranging from $750 to $2,600, so that readers can have free access to articles. A paper’s merit is gauged after publication, using assorted internet metrics like the number of downloads.
For all the differences, the fates of Nature and Frontiers have become intertwined. On February 27th Nature Publishing Group (NPG), which owns Nature and 81 other scholarly journals, announced that it has bought a controlling stake in Frontiers for an undisclosed sum. Besides 30 titles in 14 scientific fields the Swiss upstart brings a social-networking platform—a LinkedIn for boffins, if you like—to share not just research, but news, job offers and information about conferences and events. It currently boasts around 80,000 members.
This is not NPG’s first foray into the new-fangled world of “science 2.0”. It launched its first fully open-access journal, where end users pay nothing to read papers, in 2006. Now it has 16. Of the 12,900 scientific papers published by NPG journals in 2012, 2,300 were made available free. Steven Inchcoombe, NPG’s boss, says that his company’s open-access business is turning a profit. NPG’s parent company, Macmillan Publishers, also owns Digital Science, which offers, among other things, web-based alternatives to traditional measures of impact like the citation index.
The latest deal will bolster NPG’s position. In 2012 Frontiers published more than 5,000 papers, making it the fifth-biggest open-access publisher. And the market is growing. This week BioMed Central, part of Springer, number one on the list, launched its 250th periodical, catchily titled the Journal of Venomous Animals and Toxins Including Infectious Diseases. A few days earlier BioMed Central published its 150,000th paper since it was founded in 2000. Outsell, a consultancy, estimates that open-access journals generated $172m in 2012, up 34% from 2011.
This is still a tiny fraction of the $6 billion or so generated by journal subscriptions. But the traditional subscription-based model is falling out of favour. Academics have long complained that publishers abuse their monopoly-like power. Perusing Tetrahedron, say, is a must for any self-respecting chemist. So they (or rather, their university libraries) grudginly cough up €18,570 ($24,267) for an annual subscription. More than 13,000 scientists are boycotting Elsevier, a big Dutch publisher of thousands of journals, including Tetrahedron, whose 37% margins on $2.1 billion in revenues make it the biggest offender in the eyes of many. (NPG is privately-owned and does not disclose its financial results.) A consortium of particle-physics labs, libraries and funding agencies is negotiating a deal with all 12 of the field’s leading journals to make the 7,000 articles they publish each year free to read.
Governments, too, are pushing for open access to publicly financed research. Otherwise, they argue, citizens would be paying twice, in taxes and in subscription fees, to see its fruits. Last week the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP) told federal agencies to come up with plans to make the research they support available for free within 12 months of publication. A week earlier a bill that would require public access to papers after six months began to make its way through Congress. The European Union is moving in the same direction. Britain even wants to force recipients of public research grants to make papers available for free immediately, which means having to pay publication fees. Some big private funders, like the Wellcome Trust in Britain, are taking a similarly tough stance.
via The Economist
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