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Open access for biotechnology research by Dr M. Cockerill

Figure 1. Quarterly manuscript submissions to BioMed Central’s open access journals.
Figure 2. BMC Biotechnology - an open access journal from BioMed Central.

Science publishing is changing. The internet has created the possibility of universal access to scientific research, and the broad benefits of such “open access” have become clear. Open access journals are the most efficient way for researchers to share their research with other scientists (in their own field, in related fields and around the world), with policy makers, and with the public.

In the last few years, a quiet revolution has been gathering momentum in scientific publishing. Most scientific journals have been online since the late 1990s, but for the most part they retained the same business model that was used in print. Authors of research articles transfer exclusive rights to the publisher, and the publisher then sells access back to the scientific community.

While this model has served the community well for centuries, it fails to make the most of the potential of the web to universally distribute the results of scientific research. Whereas the distribution of printed journals was always fundamentally limited by the cost of physical reproduction and distribution, no such limitations apply online. An article can be shared with the whole world as easily and cheaply as with a single reader.

From the perspective of the author who carried out the research, the institution that hosted it, and the funder that paid for it, the widest possible distribution and readership of an article is of course desirable. When publishing a research article, the central objective is that others should be able to read it, cite it and build on the advances that it reports. For this reason, in the age of the internet  it simply does not make sense for research to be walled off behind toll-barriers and controlled by publishers whose limited involvement came at a late stage in the research process.

BioMed Central and open access publishing
BioMed Central launched itself as a new scientific publisher in 2000 and from the outset its policy has been to make all research articles immediately and freely available online. Having grown rapidly, BioMed Central now publishes more than 170 peer-reviewed open access online journals. Readers face no barrier to access of any kind – instead, the cost of publication is covered by an Article Processing Charge (APC) of around £750, usually paid by the author’s
institution or funder.

Over the last seven years, BioMed Central’s journals have proven themselves in terms of both quality and quantity [Figure 1]. A major milestone for BioMed Central’s journals was the release of impact factors by Thomson Scientific. Impact factors, while by no means a perfect indicator of quality, do serve as a widely-used objective journal metric. Genome Biology’s impact factor of 9.71 is especially striking for such a new journal, and many other BioMed Central journals have already achieved impressive impact factors for their fields [1].
When BioMed Central launched, open access was virtually unheard of, but since then it has become an increasingly prominent part of the mainstream scientific publishing. Several other publishers, both commercial (e.g. Hindawi) and non-commercial (e.g. Public Library of Science) have joined BioMed Central in adopting the open access model for all their journals, and as a result of pressure from researchers and funding agencies, almost every major science publisher now at least offers an open access option of some kind.

BioMed Central also makes its journal technology platform available to groups of scientists or societies that wish to run an open access journal in collaboration with BioMed Central. Its ‘independent journal’ programme now includes more than 100 such journals. Recently, too, a number of established society journals have moved to BioMed Central’s system and converted to the open access model.

Freedom to reuse and mine
BioMed Central not only makes its research articles freely accessible on its own website, but also uses the Creative Commons Attribution License [2] to allow other organisations (both commercial or non-commercial) to redistribute BioMed Central articles in any medium, and to create new works derived in whole or in part from those articles, as long as the original work is  appropriately attributed and linked.

One of the reasons that freedom of reuse is so important is that humans are increasingly not the only readers of scientific articles. Computer programs are continually trawling the web, harvesting scientific content, and seeking to make sense of it.

BioMed Central now makes its entire corpus of more than 25,000 published research articles available for download in XML form, to facilitate such text mining [3]. BioMed Central also works with semantic web researchers and technologists to find ways to enhance the amount of usefully structured data captured in articles and associated datasets, so as to aid computational analysis, addressing a major concern within the research community [4].

The role of research funders
Momentum for open access has resulted from concerted support from authors (who want their research to be widely read and cited), librarians (who are tired of having to cancel some journals in order to absorb increased subscription prices for others), but perhaps most importantly, funders. For funders, open access offers the best means to ensure that research expenditure is well spent and produces visible results.

In the UK, the Wellcome Trust has led the way in defining a role for funders in the open access movement. In 2004, it released a report on costs and business models in science publishing [5], which concluded that a transition to open access could provide greatly increased dissemination of research results at significantly lower cost than the traditional system. The Wellcome report estimated that the cost of publication was at most 1-2% of the cost of carrying out the research in the first place, and so represented a good return on investment, even before the potential savings on subscription costs were taken into account. Mark Walport, the Director of the Wellcome Trust, has said repeatedly that publication and effective dissemination should be seen as the final part of the research process, and until that has been achieved the funder’s job is incomplete.

In 2005, Wellcome became the first major funder to require its grantees to deposit a copy of any research articles resulting from Wellcome funding in a central open access archive. Wellcome’s initiative has since been broadened to encompass all the largest biomedical funders in the UK, including the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC) which, like the other members of the UK PMC funder group [6], now requires its grantees to deposit resulting research articles in UK PMC [7].

In the United States, the National Institutes of Health has had its own Public Access policy [8] in place since 2005, but in contrast to that of the UK PMC funders, this policy is voluntary and take-up has so far been fairly low. There have been increasing calls for the NIH policy to be strengthened, and other funders in the US, such as the Howard Hughes Medical Institute [9], are now considering plans for their own open access policies.

Maximum access at minimum cost
BioMed Central has developed its journal publishing system from scratch to take advantage of web technology to deliver a streamlined publication process that is both rapid and cost effective.

The largest traditional STM publisher, Reed Elsevier, recently boasted that the average cost-per-download for its subscribers in the UK had fallen to only £2 per article [10]. However, BioMed Central’s open access publication system is demonstrably able to deliver far broader access to articles at lower cost. The overall cost to the research community per full text download, for BioMed Central’s articles, is less than £0.25.

Traditional publishers have become accustomed to receiving many thousands of dollars of subscription revenue for every article published – far more than can be justified by the service that is being provided. The greater transparency of the open access publication model, in which publication is paid for as a service, acts to keep prices down to a reasonable and competitive level, something for which the subscription model is widely criticised for failing to achieve [11].

Open access archives vs open access journals
Open access archives and open access journals are sometimes presented as alternative solutions to the challenge of making research universally available, but in fact, the two are highly complementary.

Open access journals address a key criticism of open access archives, which is the suggestion that they pose a threat to subscriptions and hence to the peer review system.  It is true that, if freely accessible copies of all research articles were to be widely available via repositories, libraries would have little incentive to continue to subscribe. And if subscriptions were the only viable model on which peer-reviewed publications could operate, this would indeed be a concern. But the success of open access journals makes clear that it is entirely feasible for journals to move progressively to an open access model, in which the cost of publication is paid upfront, rather than bring recouped via subscription charges. Open access repositories and open access journals benefit from each other and are evolving
 in a productive symbiosis.

Open access journals in the field of biotechnology
BMC Biotechnology [12] [Figure 2] is one of the BMC series of journals launched by BioMed Central in 2000, which publishes research in all areas of biotechnology. The journal is now well established, and in June 2006 received its first impact factor (3.05) from Thomson Scientific. Like other BioMed Central journals, BMC Biotechnology takes full advantage of the online
environment to cross-reference articles according to their subject area of relevance. The journal homepage thus includes not just the latest research published in BMC Biotechnology, but also offers an additional list of articles relevant to biotechnology that have recently been published in other journals across BioMed Central’s portfolio. In addition, BioMed Central recently announced the upcoming launch of a new journal, Biotechnology for Biofuels [13], which provides an excellent example of the broader benefits of open access.

Biofuels is an area of applied research that is inherently interdisciplinary, with progress depending on contributions from geneticists, genomicists, biotechnologists, agronomists and chemical engineers, amongst others, each of whom benefit from open access to each others' research.

The development of improved technologies and processes for biofuel production is a topic of great public interest and one which has also attracted significant controversy.

It is strongly desirable that the results of biofuels research should be disseminated as widely as possible, both to allow the cross-fertilisation of ideas between different fields and to facilitate informed public debate on matters of policy in this area.

Whether in biofuels research, biotechnology or other areas of biology and medicine, open access publishing is the most natural way for researchers to share their results with the world. It is set to be the way of the future.

1. BioMed Central journal impact factors
2. Creative Commons Attribution License
3. BioMed Central text mining page
4. Seringhaus MR and Gerstein MB. BMC Bioinformatics 2007; 8:17.
doi: 10.1186/1471-2105-8-17
5. Costs and Business models in Scientific Publishing, A report commissioned by the Wellcome Trust, April 2004
6. UK PubMed Central funder group
7. BBSRC open access policy
8. NIH Public Access Policy
9. Cech T. HHMI Bulletin 2007; 20(2):3, A standard for openness
10. Scientific Publishing in the European Research Area: Access, Dissemination and Preservation in the Digital Age
11. European Commission report on Europe’s scientific publication system (April 2006) t/rapid/
12. BMC Biotechnology
13. Biotechnology for Biofuels 

The author
Matthew Cockerill, Ph/D.,
BioMed Central Ltd,
34-42, Cleveland Street,
London W1T 4LB, United Kingdom.


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