Is the Academic Publishing Industry on the Verge of Disruption?

Harvard complaints roil the debate over publishing and profits.

By + More

As for the accusations of a conflict of interest, this question was put toward Kristen Ratan, the chief product officer of the Public Library of Science, or PLoS, as it's commonly referred to. PLoS is a nonprofit publishing project that launched one of the earliest experiments in open access when it produced its first journal, PLoS Biology, in 2003. Formed by several scientists, PLoS today publishes seven journals, each of which has amassed significant prestige and impact within its respective field. Over a two-week period, Ratan said, PLoS will see up to 1.2 million article page views across all its journals and its impact factor--the average number of citations per article, one of the key indicators of a journal's prestige--is on par with most well-regarded closed access journals.

Ratan said the merit of an article submitted to PLoS is determined by those who have no financial interest in the publication. "I think it's a problem that PLoS has been very good at solving by engaging academic editors and peer reviewers to be the mechanisms determining what gets published, as opposed to having internal staff making those decisions," she explained. "So that removes the conflict of interest." Some have suggested that PLoS and other open-access journal publishers should charge the researcher per round of editorial review, thereby removing some of the financial incentive to accept an article (since some revenue would then be extracted even if the piece is ultimately rejected). But Ratan asserted that "peer review is only one aspect of the cost factor of publishing," and so charging for the peer review wouldn't adequately address this issue.

Asked whether she thinks open access has reached a tipping point that will soon make it a major player in the industry, Ratan pointed to the rapid increase in articles published in PLoS over the last few years--it published 84 percent more articles in 2011 than in 2010. But what's even more indicative of such a shift, she said, is how closed access journals have reacted to their open access counterparts. "What I've noticed is that publishers have responded by in some cases launching open access publications themselves. Some of the ones that have historically been closed are now experimenting in open access." Indeed, nearly every society publisher interviewed has either published an open-access journal or plans to in the near future (that includes both Elsevier and Wiley).

When an established journal converts to open access, it addresses the prestige problem that has hindered the model for years. A researcher has an incentive to always first submit his paper to a journal with the highest impact, not just because it will therefore be seen by more of his colleagues and have a larger resonance, but also because his trajectory in the tenure track partly depends on it. A brand new open access journal has no proven track record, so it can have difficulty attracting serious, groundbreaking research.

Robert Darnton, the director of Harvard's library and one of the architects of the faculty letter that caused such a stir, recognizes this problem. "You could imagine a high-minded, principled professor in the medical school here who has a laboratory and is doing very advanced research," he said. "And he might be in favor of open access and might want to take a stand against the journal prices. But he's got postdocs working in his lab, and if they can publish an article with his name in a prestigious journal it'll make all the difference in the world for their careers."

There are several ways, Darnton said, to deal with this problem. One way is to ensure that the editorial board members of a new journal are well-regarded within their fields. A journal with the sign-off of a Nobel Prize winner, for instance, carries a good deal of cache, even if the publication he's launching is brand new. Some people have embraced quasi-open access policies by publishing in a subscription journal and then releasing the paper for free after an embargo period. In fact, after a unanimous vote of its Faculty of Arts and Sciences, Harvard created a digital repository called DASH, and all faculty members are required (unless they take advantage of an opt-out waiver) to submit their academic articles to it, making their scholarly production freely available to the world.