The future is online… but not necessarily open

No Bad Science today. Instead Dr Aust is grumbling about non-open access journal archives

Learned journals in the sciences have worked out that the future is online. Well, they have worked out that the present is already pretty much all online, and the future is likely to be more so, possibly exclusively.

And now, even the past is mostly online.

By which I mean that journals are digitizing their back issues and generating online PDF archives of their historic content.

Some journals, laudably, are putting this stuff online for free. The Journal of Physiology is an example. You can read every paper more than a year old ever published in the Journal of Physiology (in the somewhat unlikely event that you should wish to), right back to issue 1 from March 1878.


Other journals, less laudably, are putting all the back issue content behind paywalls.

I say “journals”, BTW, but I should really say “publishers”. Most scientific societies that own journals feel that published papers should be open access, though many embargo access for the first six months to a year after publication. This is so that their journal can turn a profit for the society via subscription sales to academic libraries. Many of the older academic science journals are owned by learned societies; for instance the Physiological Society owns the Journal of Physiology and Experimental Physiology, the American Physiological Society owns the American Journal of Physiology stable of journals, and the American Society for Biochemistry and Molecular Biology owns the Journal of Biological Chemistry. I mention these journals in particular because they are the ones I have published stuff in the most often.

It should be said that most of the money generated by the journal goes to fund the activity of the learned society.  So the Physiological Society’s journal profits go to subsidise scientific meetings in physiology, to provide travel grants for scientists to visit other labs or attend conferences, to help support Ph.D. students, to provide small prizes for top-ranking undergraduate students doing B.Sc. Physiology degrees, and similar sorts of stuff.

Publishers who own journals behave a little differently. They want your money. And not just for looking at the new research – some want it if you look at the back numbers.

This can lead to some interesting side-effects.

For instance, just yesterday Dr Aust noticed that a review he and one of his students wrote a decade-plus back has now appeared online.

“First published online Feb 5th 2009”, it says.

Now, Dr Aust thought it might be nice to have a PDF copy of this article. It was hardly a ground-breaking review, rather a methodological introduction to something. It has been cited only a less than impressive three (!) times, and one of those times was by me.

But…it tried to be clearly written and instructional. Though it is now obviously rather dated, it would still probably make a useful primer for final year undergraduate project students, and starting Ph.D. students, in the lab, since it takes them through the principles underlying the way we analyse a lot of our experimental data.

Now, another reason for getting the PDF is that Dr Aust, probably like a good few other academics, collects PDF versions of his published papers. Yes, deeply sad, I know, but there you go. And it was the first review article I ever wrote.

Finally, Dr Aust has a soft spot for this article because I wrote most of it at my mate Phil’s house in Sydney, Australia, while on a sort of half-working holiday. I would write for two or three hours in the morning and then catch the train in from the North Shore and mooch off around Sydney harbour with a sandwich and a ginger beer. After a leisurely afternoon’s pottering I would join Dr Phil down at Sydney Uni for a couple of after-work cold ones – or perhaps a trip to the Thai or Chinese supermarket, or the Sydney fishmarket, to gather some choice ingredients (Dr Aust’s mate was a a bit of a gourmet amateur chef in those days).

Anyway, I clicked the link to see the full PDF version of the article.

No joy. Access denied.

Dr Aust’s University, it turns out, does not have a subscription to the journal in question. And without a subscription, the content is paywalled. Even stuff from back in 1997.

I can, apparently, get the article for a mere 30 US Dollars.

The slight paradox of my own words being online, but me not being able to read them, has its ironic aspects. But it does seem a bit of a cheek.

After all, I didn’t get paid by the publisher for the article. Nor did my student sidekick who co-authored it. A government agency (a Research Council) was funding his Ph.D. The lab was funded at the time by the Wellcome Trust. And Dr Aust’s trip to Australia (and to a conference in Japan) was being part-funded by a Royal Society travel grant.

So ALL these folks would have had a legitimate claim to have supported the writing of the article. as, of course, would the “red brick” University that was paying, and still pays, Dr Aust’s salary.

In contrast, Karger, the publisher, definitely weren’t paying anything for anything. They got the content for the journal for nothing.

And they are the ones now selling the article for 30 bucks a pop.

Now, I suppose this meets some business model, though I reckon the chance of anyone paying 30 dollars for this article is nil. Let’s face it, if I’m not going to, you had better believe no-one else is.

It is also, I think, short-sighted, because it virtually ensures that the journal will get cited less often

Why? Well, consider the following. Suppose a scientist needs to cite a reference for something in a paper s/he is writing (say, a description of a  method of analysis). They will be looking for a reference to cite. This might be the paper where they read about the method, or it might be something else on similar lines that describes the method particularly clearly.

Let’s suppose out hypothetical scientist finds two possible references s/he could cite.

It is fairly obvious to me that if one of these is free to read online, accessible from your desk or home computer – while the other is paywalled and would require a trip to the library stacks or the coughing up of 30 dollars – that you will be far more likely to cite the one you can read.

So somehow, I don’t think that Dr Aust’s little review is going to get cited any more than the three times it has already. A shame, really.

And I still don’t have my PDF.



21 Responses to “The future is online… but not necessarily open”

  1. jdc Says:

    Nice post Dr Aust. Some interesting thoughts there.

  2. Grumpy Bob Says:

    I started subscribing to Nature in 1982 (it was a birthday present in my first yeat as a PhD student. I subscribed continually until a few years ago, when I discovered that I had no free access to the archived material pre-1987 (I think). I exchanged emails with various bods at Nature subs and other places, then decided that the publisher’s attitude was so unreasonable that I didn’t renew my subscription.

    Interesting you mention the Wellcome Trust, as I believe they now have a requirement that publications derived from their funding be open access. However, I think this offers a further round of indignity from the publishers – to have an article open access is another payment to the publishers.

    I think we owe it to funders and the scientific community as a whole to at least consider publishing in open access journals as the first possibility.

  3. Sceric Says:

    >>It is fairly obvious to me that if one of these is free to read online, accessible from your desk or home computer – while the other is paywalled and would require a trip to the library stacks or the coughing up of 30 dollars – that you will be far more likely to cite the one you can read.

    and that leads sometimes -as I know from my own experience – to the use of low level literature that sometimes even isn’t completely right. In my case (without the access to a university library and unwilling to invest hundreds of Euros in literature that I even couldn’t be sure that it is relevant) this resulted in a downgrading of my second master thesis

  4. Neuroskeptic Says:

    I can confirm that papers that are behind paywalls don’t get read. I’ve never known anyone who’s paid for a particular article. When I was an undergrad writing my final year project I made several trips to the deepest darkest archives of the library to retrieve paper copies of journals that were paywalled. But if they hadn’t had the paper copies, I’d just have pretended the papers didn’t exist.

  5. wilsontown Says:

    dr aust,

    Have you tried e-mailing the nice people at the journal, and asking for an author’s copy of the PDF? You might not get anywhere, but it’s worth a try. And if they refused, you could always blog about it…

  6. anthony mckie Says:

    to mirror neuroskeptic’s sentiment – i am an undergraduate student and i access journals a lot ( a lot more than others in my degree – probably because im a bit sadder) I have never even been to the journal section of my library simply because of the ease of finding and accessing articles on line. Using sites like scopus, medscape – i just ignore articles behind paywalls that my institution doesn’t have access to. Normally you can find a journal on another site for free, or some dodgy photocopied effort. Otherwise to me the journal doesnt exist – a new kind of publication bias.

  7. DMcILROY Says:

    You’re right DrAust putting articles behind paywalls is just going to make the journals less attractive, and reduce their impact factor.

    Very often several articles describe similar findings. After bringing up a set of Medline results, the only references I read are the ones that I can get online, and the very first ones I read are those that have the have a little note with FREE Full Text in PubMEd Central or FREE Full Text with a link to the journal’s web site.


  8. Clydicus Says:

    > Karger, the publisher, definitely weren’t paying
    > anything for anything. They got the content for
    > the journal for nothing.

    This is disingenuous to say the least. Publishing happens for free? Print journals and websites sprout up on their own, with no effort by anyone? Editorial work, peer review, statistical analysis, fact checking, graphic design, typesetting, search engine optimization… all of these things happen for free???

    How about digitizing old, dated papers that are “hardly a ground-breaking” and have been “cited only a less than impressive three (!) times”? Does that happen for free? Don’t you feel any sense of appreciation for the fact that there is a nicely formatted digital copy of you paper has been made available?

    If there was no potential for recouping costs, this paper of yours would not be available online at all.

    I suppose you would never want a paper you wrote to show up in JAMA or NEJM because those journals have paywalls that make them less attractive… I suppose, as your commenters suggest, articles published in JAMA and NEJM “might as well not exist” because they require subscriptions to recoup the enormous costs of publishing…

  9. draust Says:

    No one is suggesting publishers should work for nothing, but academic journals remain an incredibly profitable business – in part because the publishers do not bear a large chunk of the operating costs of the journal.

    For instance, typically members of editorial boards of academic journals are not paid a penny. Senior editors (typically half a dozen per journal) get something for the many many hours they put in, but it rarely amounts to more than a 5-10% (at most) top-up of their salary, and usually does not reflect the workload involved in any way.

    Next, the referees who review the papers do it for nothing. Gratis. And the costs of running the editorial office for an academic society journal (admin people, mostly) will typically be subsidised by the publisher, but usually only on a “fraction of their time” basis.

    Finally, the authors are not paid, and in many cases have to pay a manuscript submission fee, and (for many US journals) substantial page charges. There may also be extra charges to the author for colour figures.

    In essence, the publisher in this set-up only takes on production and marketing, for which they make a decent return. And there is less production then there used to be, as journals now all require you to submit copy electronically, along with “production ready” graphs and other illustrations. They also get you to proof-read your own articles.

    Plus, given the rise in DTP computer software, there is no way that “converting to print-ready text” costs are comparable to what they were even ten years ago. But journals prices keep on rising.

    Talking of prices, learned society journals will typically be priced at a level agreed between the publisher and the society that owns the journal. In general, the learned society journals are priced to turn a bit of a profit (divided between the learned society and the publisher who physically produces the journal), but not a vast amount. When a price rise is discussed, the main debate is:

    “Dare we raise prices to keep pace with costs and maintain some acceptable rate of return – we don’t want to raise prices as it will arguably decrease access”

    The contrast to all this is journals owned by the publishers. For these, the publisher can and will charge “what the market will bear” – in terms of both subscription and single-article access. Usually that is a lot, most notoriously with Elsevier’s journals. It is widely reported that academic journal publishing by these companies earns a multiple of the profit margin that big publishers make on any other kind of publishing.

    For instance, here is an academic librarian in the US, quoted in the British Medical Journal a few years ago:

    Mr Robert Michaelson, head librarian at the Seeley G Mudd Library for Science and Engineering at Northwestern University, Evanston, Illinois, said:

    “Elsevier is the big cartel that we face in science and engineering libraries. At my university, about half of the dollars we spend on science and engineering journals go on Elsevier owned publications. Elsevier is obviously trying to make a profit, but it is difficult to understand the enormous difference in the cost of some of their journals compared to similar journals published by learned societies.”

    I agree that digitizing the back-archive has a cost, but I note that many of the learned society journals have taken this cost out of their profits, with no add-on cost to the reader.

    I don’t know specifically about Karger’s pricing policy. They obviously charge what they think the market will bear. But, as many people commenting here have said, paywalling the content will mean it does not get read, and does not get cited. That will not do the journal any favours. NEJM, JAMA, Science and Nature are famous enough to set their own rules, as people will want to publish there whatever. But for a mid-category specialist journal I think it is short-sighted.

    Finally, I published the article in the particular journal because it was a supplement produced to accompany a conference where I was a speaker – I didn’t get to choose the journal, as the conference organisers did the deal. I am happy to confirm that at the time, as a fairly junior academic, I was just grateful for another paper on my CV/resume. However, if I had a paper to submit now, and was choosing where, I would not send it to one of Karger’s journals, or to one of Elsevier’s.

  10. apgaylard Says:

    Clydicus: Some valid points here, a publisher does incur some costs. However, peer review is free to the publisher. Academics and (sometimes) industrial researchers like me give our time to provide peer review for free.

    Given some of the stuff I read in journals I’m not sure I see much evidence for publisher-funded fact checking. Perhaps it happens at the top end of the market?

    Also, JAMA do offer a lot of content free on line. I’ve not checked how comprehensive it is; but I certainly seem to be able to pick up some articles for free.

    Now: graphic design, type-setting, web design, costs of production – you have a point. However journal publishers are still selling a product based on (at the least) free “raw material”. Not many businesses have that advantage.

    I’d also guess that they look to cover their costs very soon after publication. The design work, overheads etc associated with the older stuff must have been covered. Though, I know, scanning and marketing via a website still costs something.

    But you also have to wonder about a business model that doesn’t discount old stock. It’s better to get, say $5 a few times than $30 never. A report I did in 1992 is still for sale for 300 euro. Still, at least it’s the parent organisation of the funding body. Still, in terms of it’s technical content – the field has moved on so much that I can’t see that there’s any value in it at all. It’s never going to sell at that price, so it makes no business sense to try.

    Publishers that hawk old content at high prices just can’t be very interested in maximising the return. Though maybe it isn’t worth the candle? Still, given the very low cost of electronic delivery there has to be a case for more imaginative (lower cost) business models.

  11. pj Says:

    Am I just old fashioned? I make treks to the library to get articles inaccessible online, I get inter-library loans of journal articles, I’ve even paid for a few articles that I thought looked particularly pertinent to my work.

    Sure, if it is peripheral to what I’m doing and not online (although my Uni journal access system is pretty labyrinthine to negotiate anyway) then I’ll ignore it – so citation wise it’ll not get anything from me – but you can’t just ignore all articles that aren’t online (well, you might be able to as an undergrad) – your paper reviewers or thesis examiners might just think it a little bit strange if you haven’t cited a classic paper in the field (and some fields are filled with paywalled content, particularly if they’re closely associated with industry), or, even worse, have cited it but clearly haven’t read it.

  12. Non-Open Access Journal Archives « Says:

    […] March 23 tags: journal archives, non-open access by The Armchair Daddy Nice little post from a grumpy scientist, echoing my previous frustration on this […]

  13. draust Says:

    And talking of the venerable JAMA (the Journal of the American Medical Association), they have not exactly covered themselves with glory here (and see here for more of the story)

  14. Philippe Leick Says:

    The publishers might just be too lazy to actually think about individual prices for articles, depending on their age or the amount of time that they’ve been cited. Depressing really…

    I actually once paid a few bucks for an article… but generally, I think, the “single article” price is likely to be paid by libraries when somebody requests that article.
    The company I work for maintains a scientific library. If I need/want an article that they don’t have in their own archives (which are pretty small), it will be sent to me within a few days – which is a really nice service. The downturn is that, due to some obscure copyright laws – or so I am told – this will be done by fax. Trying to read colour figures on these is guaranteed to cause eye cancer.

    On an even more depressing note: some of the students whose master’s theses I supervised didn’t, at the time, even know that academic journals exist. Wikipedia and Google were thought to be sufficient.

  15. Mark Says:

    OK, confessions first – I am a publisher of paid content (though not in medicine or medical research).

    In this instance 30USD for an article, immediately delivered, that would solve a pressing need seems a bargain, compared to a couple of hours travelling to some musty old library and then searching through some micro-fiche, boxes of paper, or whatever dated media its on. You’d spend that in bus fares alone unless you lived next door.

    And to put thousands of documents on line and host them is expensive. While the authors document may well have only been referenced a few times it is the top sellers that make it possible for everything else to be there. But the publishers aren’t (as far as I know) only putting the top sellers up there as a resource – they are supplying everything.

    I don’t believe that top level research in medicine is any different to any other field of excellence and that people will cite lesser works because they are free seems absurd. Perhaps research that doesn’t matter cites other works that don’t matter?

    It seems a matter of funding priorities – if there isn’t a budget for research that is vital to a project either the project scope is wrong or the budgets are. At 30 bucks a pop, which is hardly a massive amount, I don’t see how the blame is laid at the door of a publisher.

  16. Svetlana Says:

    These words show once again that paywalls are disgusting attempt to cash in on difficulties of library access. It resembles the manner of homeopaths to line their pockets playing on demerits of free Medicine and Healthcare.
    Expensive? No! It is lie. moreover, it is idle words to hide real mercantile interests. It is not expensive as compared to library’s expenditures and labors. However, libraries find possibilities for free access. Why can’t publisher do so? Because publisher desires to gain dishonest profit!
    Yes, dishonest! Look at this situation attentively. Why have the right of author been outraged? Why does author receive nothing from paywalls and even quite the reverse – he is forced to pay money for HIS OWN WORK? And is it a justice?! Is it honesty?

  17. Svetlana Says:

    Certainly, in the light of such behaviour of publishers any our attempts to get free full-texts by different sly tricks are justified. I got this paper by “bypass” (honest bypass!), sent it to author and besides I shall distribute it free for all comers. I don’t to care a damn how people consider my action. I think that I acted well.

  18. David Colquhoun Says:

    I find myself moving inexorably towards the idea that we should ditch publishers altogether. At one time they provided a service in the form of typography and art work, but now we do all that ourselves anyway So why don’t we just put it online ourselves and say ‘comments are now open’.

    What about peer review? If the authors have any sense they’d get their most critical friends to read the paper before it appeared If they haven’t any sense then the comment section would do the reviewing publicly. Since just about any paper, however poor, now appears in some ‘peer reviewed’ journal, the effect of reviewing is not really yo maintain the quality of the literature, but to maintain the hierarchy of journal status (a matter of no interest to anyone but journal owners).

    A secondary benefit would be to solve the absurd problem of everyone wanting to publish in the same two journals (at the behest of the bone-headed bean counters who rule science). A paper would stand or fall on its own merits.

    The amount of money that would be freed for better purposes would be enormous. No more Elsevier, no mare Nature Publishing group. That sounds like bliss to me.

    There are, I admit, some problems in this proposal that I don’t know how to solve. The biggest one would be the effect on the income of learned societies.

    Nevertheless the advantages of the proposal would be so enormous, it seems to me that it is something that scientists themselves should be thinking about.

  19. Svetlana Says:

    No problem! “Samizdat” existed already in USSR, when censorship pestered clever and courageous intelligentsia’s literature:

    And now we are pestered by “businessmen”, not by censors. And I think that time has really come to open new XXI century Internet “Samizdat” .

  20. Svetlana Says:

    Learned societies will gain their income from other activities. Science is very profitable business. But who does receive all profit now, eh?..
    That is it…
    In fact we are “scientific slaves” in modern society! :(

  21. draust Says:

    Actually, learned societies really only make money on journals. Their other activities all tend to be break-even, or more commonly loss-making. In particular, scientific meetings for researchers (as opposed to ones for Pharma folk and/or for clinicians) almost always make a loss, and tend to be heavily subsidised out of learned societies’ journal income, or even from reserves (investments).

    The other main sources of income for learned societies, apart from journal profit-share, are member subscriptions and interest on investments. But journal profit share usually generates considerably more than these other income sources. Membership fees are typically set at such a level as to be non profit-making; “member benefits”, like society magazines, travel grants to members to attend meetings, subsidised tea and coffee at meetings etc etc. tend to swallow the membership fees, and then some.

    Finally, investment income tends to be confined to those societies that own journals since it was the journals that generated enough profit to invest in the stock market in the first place; but in the present climate the returns on investments are way down, even if you avoid investing your society’s cash in dodgy Icelandic banks.

    Both the profits and reserves are also needed as insurance “against a rainy day”. A big conference can lose you a lot of money. As an example, the big four-yearly IUPS Congresses rarely make any money, if ever. More usually the national learned societies end up bailing the meeting out, sometimes to the tune of hundreds of thousands of pounds.

    Anyway, the take-home message is that ALL the learned societies that actually have the money to run a lot of activities, and give grants, and keep meeting costs down, are doing it with income from journals. The learned societies that don’t own journals tend to be much, much smaller-scale operations.

    The predicted consequence of losing the journal profits would be a drastic scale-back in the “charitable” (science-promoting) activities of the societies (see the original post), and almost certainly a major increase in registration fees for the conferences that the societies run. Of course, the societies COULD double or treble the membership fees, but most non-US societies do not have vast memberships willing to pay £ 200 (or equivalent) a year. And inevitably, the higher you set the fee, the less attractive membership of the society becomes.

    All in all it is a real problem. But unfortunately some of the folk pushing for open access do not seem to accept that it is an issue. Some years ago now, the story did the rounds in the UK that Professor Mark Walport, now Chief Exec of the Wellcome Trust and a key advocate for open access, had been buttonholed by several of the UK learned societies anxious to make their concerns on this known to him. According to this story, his response was pretty much: “Well, we want Open Access, and the learned societies and their finances aren’t my problem”.

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