PLoS (and NPG) redefine the scholarly publishing landscape
Nature Publishing Group yesterday announced a new venture, very closely modelled on the success of PLoS ONE, titled Scientific Reports. Others have started to cover the details and some implications so I won’t do that here. I think there are three big issues here. What does this tell us about the state of Open Access? What are the risks and possibilities for NPG? And why oh why does NPG keep insisting on a non-commercial licence? I think those merit separate posts so here I’m just going to deal with the big issue. And I think this is really big.
[I know it bores people, hell it bores me, but the non-commercial licence is a big issue. It is an even bigger issue here because this launch may define the ground rules for future scholarly communication. Open Access with a non-commercial licence actually achieves very little either for the community, or indeed for NPG, except perhaps as a cynical gesture. The following discussion really assumes that we can win the argument with NPG to change those terms. If we can the future is very interesting indeed.]
The Open Access movement has really been defined by two strands of approach. The “Green Road” involves self archiving of pre-prints or published articles in subscription journals as a means of providing access. It has had its successes, perhaps more so in the humanities, with deposition mandates becoming increasingly common both at the institutional level and the level of funders. The other approach, the “Gold Road” is for most intents and purposes defined by commercial and non-profit publishers based on a business model of article processing charges (APCs) to authors and making the published articles freely available at a publisher website. There is a thriving community of “shoe-string business model” journals publishing small numbers of articles without processing charges but in terms of articles published OA publishing is dominated by BioMedCentral, the pioneers in this area, now owned by Springer, Public Library of Science, and on a smaller scale Hindawi. This approach has gained more traction in the sciences, particularly the biological sciences.
From my perspective yesterday’s announcement means that for the sciences, the argument for Gold Open Access as the default publication mechanism has effectively been settled. Furthermore the future of most scholarly publishing will be in publication venues that place no value on a subjective assessment of “importance”. Those are big claim, but NPG have played a bold and possibly decisive move, in an environment where PLoS ONE was already starting to dominate some fields of science.
PLoS ONE was already becoming a default publication venue. A standard path for getting a paper published is, have a punt at Cell/Nature/Science, maybe a go at one of the “nearly top tier” journals, and then head straight for PLoS ONE, in some cases with the technical assessments already in hand. However in some fields, particularly chemistry, the PLoS brand wasn’t enough to be attractive against the strong traditional pull of American Chemical Society or Royal Society of Chemistry journals and Angewandte Chemie. Scientific Reports changes this because of the association with the Nature brand. If I were the ACS I’d be very worried this morning.
The announcement will also be scaring the hell out of those publishers who have a lot of separate, lower tier journals. The problem for publication business models has never been with the top tier, that can be made to work because people want to pay for prestige (whether we can afford it in the long term is a separate question). The problem has been the volume end of the market. I back Dorothea Salo’s prediction [and again] that 2011/12 would see the big publishers looking very closely at their catalogue of 100s or 1000s of low yield, low volume, low prestige journals and see the beginning of mass closures, simply to keep down subscription increases that academic libraries can no longer pay for. Aggregated large scale journals with streamlined operating and peer review procedures, simplified and more objective selection criteria, and APC supported business models make a lot of sense in this market. Elsevier, Wiley, Springer (and to a certain extent BMC) have just lost the start in the race to dominate what may become the only viable market in the medium term.
With two big players now in this market there will be real competition. Others have suggested [see Jason Priem's comment] this will be on the basis of services and information. This might be true in the longer term but in the short to medium term it will be on two issues: brand, and price. The choice of name is a risk for NPG, the Nature brand is crucial to success of the venture, but there’s a risk of dilution of the brand which is NPG’s major asset. That the APC for Science Reports has been set identically to PLoS ONE is instructive. I have previously argued that APC driven business models will be the most effective way of forcing down publication costs and I would expect to see competition develop here. I hope we might soon see a third player in this space to drive effective competition.
At the end of the day what this means is that there are now seriously credible options for publishing in Open Access venues (assuming we win the licensing argument) across the sciences, that funders now support Article Processing Charges, and that there is really no longer any reason to publish in that obscure subscription journal that no-one actually read anyway. The dream of a universal database of freely accessible research outputs is that much closer to our reach.
Above all, this means that PLoS in particular has succeeded in its aim of making Gold Open Access publication a credible default option. The founders and team at PLoS set out with the aim of changing the publication landscape. PLoS ONE was a radical and daring step at the time which they pulled off. The other people who experimented in this space also deserve credit but it was PLoS ONE in particular that found the sweet spot between credibility and pushing the envelope. I hope that those in office are cracking open some bubbly today. But not too much. For the first time there is now some serious competition and its going to be tough to keep up. There remains a lot more work to be done (assuming we can sort out the licence).
Full disclosure: I am an academic editor for PLoS ONE, editor in chief of the BioMedCentral journal Open Research Computation, and have advised PLoS, BMC, and NPG in a non-paid capacity on a variety of issues that relate closely to this post.
- Nature Publishing Group Announces New Open Access Journal and Support for CC! (creativecommons.org)
- The Library: Three Jeremiads by Robert Darnton | The New York Review of Books (nybooks.com)
- For Open Access Journals, Size Does Matter (scholarlykitchen.sspnet.org)