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June 17, 2006

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MarkD

Marcus, your entry raises several issues.

Being a man, first and foremost, of practicality I have to ask the question; how do you sustain this project over the long-term? What is the business model that assures revenues large enough to cover costs? There are many short-comings to capitalism but the one thing it does very well is allocate assets and assign costs and revenues. A project that does not pay for itself implies that the service provided does not generate enough utility to warrant its existence. That is the long-handed way of saying the market brutally (without bias) assigns value to all human endeavor. If you cannot raise the money to pay for a project, that is a very good indication that the market believes the project not worth the effort. This is the most important challenge facing open access. How does it become sustainable?

On the issue of open peer review I think you need to ask yourself why others chose a process where anonymity was central to the peer review process. Human nature being what it is, world-class publications such as the NEJM introduced anonymity to reduce the possibility of bias. If I like you, and review your work, I have a bias to be less critical. On the other hand, if I dislike you, I will tend to be more critical. It is unreasonable to expect people to view issues dispassionately. Friendship and enmity are powerful emotions. It is unlikely that these emotions can be eliminated entirely in a review process. It is for that reason reviewers and authors are unaware of each other in the traditional model. What criteria will you use to judge whether open review performs as well or better then the traditional closed review? How will you judge the quality of the review? I have worked for publications that have used both open and traditional review processes. The journals with the traditional process tend to have better reputations. You can argue whether this is a cause and effect relationship, however traditional review does seem to imply higher quality in the eyes of readers.

Marcus

Definitely Biomedical Digital Libraries will rise or fall on the strength (or weakness) of the larger open access movement. I think we will be sustainable when two things happen: once we reach a critical mass of submissions, so that the journal is a place where people want to publish; and when all authors see publication as the final step in research, not a step removed from research. Librarians are in an unusual position here, because major grants do not fund most library work. Even an NIH mandate to disseminate work within 6 months--should that come to pass--would not be as relevant for us.

So BDL is definitely an experiment, which could fail. Of course I would much prefer that it succeed, but if it does not survive all articles published to date are permanently archived in PubMed Central. That gives me some consolation.

Regarding open review: We had a vigorous debate about this among the editorial staff. The policy changed in April, and has only applied to a literal handful of articles since then. I feel that the open reviews have been as rigorous and thorough as the old ones. Plus, people are always free to decline a review if they detect an insurmountable personal bias.

BDL is in the minority with this policy, but not an extreme minority. Just last week Nature publications began an open review experiment. I think this will become the norm over time; reviews take a lot of work, and one advantage of an open review is that you can take credit for that work. Friendship and enmity are powerful motivators, but so is professional prestige.

MarkD

Marcus, it is not enough to hope for the best. You have to think it through. What will sustain your endeavor over the long run? The open access movement often points to grants. While grants may be a possibility, I think it noteworthy to point out that I know of no publication that has survived (in the long-term) on government grants. By their very nature, governments change frequently. Historically they have proven to be fair weather supporters. I don’t think I need to point that out to librarians in the public sector. You live with government inconstancy every day. In the age of George Bush , even if there was precedent for a viable publication through grants, I don’t think it wise to give government control of scientific literature. So how does the open access publication fund itself?

I’ve heard much talk of article fees. But then this option provides its own problems. An author fee model in conjunction with open review is a dangerous mix, in my view. Granted, for your particular publication, that may not be the case. But in the world of medical journals I think this model raises serious concerns. Imagine if your publication published original medical research, much of which is funded by corporations. These corporations have huge financial stakes in this research. Companies have risen and fallen based on the evidence of a single original paper. With financial stakes this high you can rest assured that corruption will follow. If you add to this an open review process, in a community where the majority of reviewers have conflicting financial interests of their own, you have created a system open to wild manipulation.

If all medical publications used an open access model, derived a significant portion of their revenues from author fees, and implemented an open review process; what do you think would happen? My maternal grandfather always taught me to follow the money. The financial conflicts inherent in this type of system would be overwhelming. Authors (read people employed by private corporations) would be given a very strong incentive to bid for publication access. Publishers would also be given a financial incentive to encourage a bidding process. Add to this mix reviewers who are now known to the authors. Two things will happen. Authors (corporations) would have an incentive to bribe reviewers for a favorable review. Rival authors (corporations) would have an incentive to bribe reviewers for negative reviews. Reviewers themselves are not without financial interests. If you are a reviewer paid by company X and you review a paper authored by company Y what do you do if the research shows that Y’s product is better the X’s? Do you stand on your professional ethics and do the right thing, or do you indulge your own financial interests? What if the amount of money involved is in the hundreds of millions even billions of dollars? Then what?

This is not to say that the current system is perfect. It isn’t by a long shot. But the current system was designed to address these issues. It has been a long and painful process to get the imperfect but effective system we have in place today. Open access may indeed be a better approach. But it can only be a better approach if these issues are addressed openly and honestly. As my maternal grandfather always said – follow the money!

Marcus

We do have to seek to ensure the feasibility of Biomedical Digital Libraries, but I am not concerned right now. I am comfortable that BioMed Central will be around for the foreseeable future, and with it Biomedical Digital Libraries as well. Even in the very worst case, all articles are permanently archived.

The potential negative effects of open peer review are troubling, although as Mark D notes they are not as relevant for Biomedical Digital Libraries as they are for medical journals.

Certainly bribery of a known reviewer is a grave concern. But if we really reach the point where a significant portion of revenue for major journals comes from author fees, that would be the time to institute many controls to guard against abuses of the system. Right now I think this is a legitimate, but theoretical, concern.

Open review is a novel concept that has philosophical (if not real world) integrity: Greater transparency leads to more honest reviews. After all, the august British Medical Journal carried articles as long ago as 1999 praising open review: http://bmj.bmjjournals.com/cgi/content/full/318/7175/4

So I think it is reasonable to see how it works with Biomedical Digital Libraries.

MarkD

Marcus, are you sure that BioMed Central will be around for the “foreseeable future.?’ Why are you sure of that? I have been in this business a long time. Their author fees seem unrealistically low to me. Does BioMed Central report on their financial health? I see they sell advertising to subsidise their author charges, but I don’t see many ads. I may have missed it, but I didn’t see any place on their site where they reported financial statistics. They claim to be leaders in open information. Wouldn’t it therefore make sense to publish their financial records?

My point. Up to now I don’t think the open access movement has been serious. The open access movement continues to play the role of the spoiler. Open access journals present themselves for what they are not – traditional publishers. There has been a great deal of hype but no substance. You know how I feel about hype. Is the open access model working? Is it a success? There are many presentations out there presenting many ‘successful’ statistics. It seems odd to me that the only statistics not reported regularly are the most important statistics of all – the financial statistics. Whether we like it or not, whether you are for profit or not-for-profit – at the end of the day we all live and die on the finances. If we don’t raise the money to pay for our efforts then we cannot continue those efforts. My position isn’t glorious, it isn’t fun, but unfortunately my position does represent the cold hard facts.

I did a Google search on BioMed Central finances. As far as I can see, no financial statistics have ever been presented on BioMed Central.

Marcus

BioMed Central recently raised their author fees significantly, and has also trimmed its membership packages. So they are responding to financial realities, whatever they are. I agree completely that their books should be open. Maybe I should see if any other independent journal editors have looked into this.

So while I can't say that BMC will be around for the "foreseeable future," I do think the "immediate future" (say 1 year or 2) is reasonably certain. They continue to add new journals, and have also spun off products such as institutional repository software.

If BMC were on the brink of collapse, Biomedical Digital Libraries could explore the use of Open Journal Systems (OJS; http://pkp.sfu.ca/?q=ojs) to manage the journal. The problem here would be finding people able to do the work, because OJS shifts the production duties--now fulfilled by BioMed Central--to volunteers.

But at least OJS is an option. And if it really reached this point, I'm sure we would think of other alternatives as well.

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