Three major life science funders, the Howard Hughes Medical Institute, the Wellcome Trust, and the Max Planck Society today announced that they intend to fund the launch of what they hope will become a top-tier biomedical and life science journal to rival the likes of Nature and the New England Journal of Medicine — and it might seem the Public Library of Sciences’ (PLoS] flagship open access biomedical journals. The journal, which they expect to begin publishing summer 2012, has yet to be given a name, but it would be online-only and open-access, with — initially at least – no charges for authors to publish papers, by contrast to most open access journals such as PLoS Biology which charge authors an article fee.
These three funders are powerful players in life science research, so what they say, and do, matters – a lot. I’ve reported on open access for more than a decade, and have long been a supporter of it, but not an uncritical one — I’ve questioned initiatives (in this often too emotionally-charged and often ideological debate) where I felt these needed reality or other checks. I can’t speak for Nature Publishing Group, the publishers of Nature (and my employer), but as a journalist with knowledge of this topic, my own take on this new venture is, for the moment, fairly sceptical.
All we have to go on for now is a joint press conference held in London this afternoon, and here the three funders’ arguments on the need for this new journal seemed to me vague and unconvincing, and poorly thought-out, surprisingly so. The leaders of the agencies conceded that they have no clear idea as to how the journal’s operations could be sustainably-funded to make it financially-viable in the long-term, while nonetheless saying that this was their ultimate goal. Their rationale for the new journal, what value it could add, what shortcomings in the existing journal offerings it would address, and how precisely it would achieve this, were similarly disturbingly wooly, and to my mind overly simplistic.
“As three of the larger funders of science research, we feel that it is our responsibility not only to provide researchers with the best resources to do their research,” said Robert Tjian, president of the Howard Hughes Medical Institute, “research doesn’t end with just finishing experiments, but actually making the information accessible and to a wide community of scientists.” Mark Walport, director of the Wellcome Trust, said that the journal would aim to attract the “absolute top tier of scientific publications, the very best,” from scientists worldwide. It would be edited “for scientists by scientists,” he added.
Herbert Jäckle, vice president of the Max Planck Society, bemoaned what he claimed were the shortcomings of existing top-tier journals: he complained of long delays in the time it takes to have a paper published, and of referees’ excessive demands for additional experiments to be done before a paper could be accepted (in passing Nature editorialized on the latter issue a few weeks back – see “There’s a time to be critical“).
Jäckle also had a gripe that many top journals use former scientists as full-time editors, rather than practicisng scientists – they are “quote, no longer scientists,” he said in what came across as a fairly condescending manner, “in the peer review process they follow research, but they have no active and leading role in the peer-review process.” He suggested this somehow delayed the review process. Editors of the new journal would be working scientists and would have the scientific expertise to quickly make decisions on manuscripts without going back and forward to reviewers, said Tjian. Hmm: that’s the model used by most academic journals already, so not much new here, and I’d argue that full-time, highly-experienced, diligent, dedicated non-working scientist editors, perhaps have a better and more impartial view of the big picture of the field, are far more experienced as editors, and are ultimately more independent.
Jäckle also alleged that leading journals tried to maximise their impact factors, and media impact “rather than focussing on the best science.” “This is what we would like to change,” he said. Tjian railed against what he described as the proliferation of supplementary figures, and said the new journal would include these rarely except for large datasets, as it created excessive reviewing and requests for additional experiments. At the same time, he noted that the journal would take advantage of the Web to have no page limits.
So what are the new journal’s proposed solutions to this ragbag of assorted supposed woes with the current journal system. The journal, they say, would have rapid review and revision, with editorial decisions on a paper being made within 3 to 4 weeks. What magic wand will it wave to ensure that scientists busy with other tasks than reviewing consistently produce this outcome? — there was no clear answer today. The editorial team would have 12 or so expert editors with expertise in the subject who would quickly assess papers, said Walport, adding that few modifications or additional experiments would be requested before acceptance. The journal would avoid “endless series of nitpicking,” he said.
The three agencies do not intend to be publishers of the journal themselves. Instead they intend to set up a joint venture, and sub-contract that job out to a publisher. But what business model do the Howard Hughes Medical Institute, the Max Planck Society and the Wellcome Trust intend to pursue? Open access business models, using author-pays, have been proven to work well for low- and mid-tier journals, but author-pays business models for top tier journals which have high rejection rates and high overheads have proved elusive. Take the Public Library of Science which set out in 2003 to create top tier journals in the life sciences arguing then that the operating costs could be covered by charging a modest author fee. That naive and poorly thought-out, yet heavily-pushed, idea proved not to be the case – far from it — as PLoS subsequently discovered: it finally managed to keep PLoS Biology and its other flagship top-tier journals afloat only through a cross-subsidy model, where PLoS ONE, a highly-profitable database of articles with far lower overhead costs, provided the bulk of the income to support their higher overhead journals – to PLoS’s credit, that’s an imaginative and worthy business model, but it’s not the one that PloS originally vaunted: that the top tier journals could themselves become financially self-sufficient through page charges.
So given this, I asked what the new journal’s open access business model would be? So far, it hasn’t even decided, leaving that job up to the editor-in-chief and the journal to work out once they are in place. “You are right that the PLoS model has shown that it is having a stable of journals that ultimately provided the ultimate sustainability, and in the long term we will be looking to develop a sustainable model,” replied Walport. In the meantime, the three agencies would pay for everything — a non sustainable model — with no author charges at all being required. How much in dollars this support would amount to Walport wouldn’t say, only that they would “fund it sufficiently to do its job well.” So they are heftily subsidising it, but have so far committed only to cover the costs of launching the journal to ensure its a success. What happens after, who will pay, and what business model it will have remains unclear.
The open access publishing scene has evolved over the past decade to become a dynamic competitive environment coexisting with subscription-based publishers, and author pays open access, where it works, is also being adopted widely by subscription-based publishers. Given this, the new initiative by these three funders — who have long supported existing open access initiatives — seems a bit retro, and to lack any compelling raison d’être — from what we know so far from today’s press conference, this new journal appears to offer few tangible novel innovations, and may indeed disrupt the thriving open access environment. Its decision not to charge author fees, at least in the journal’s short and medium term, in fact could risk setting back the cause of open-access publishing by undermining — through what might be considered unfair competition — economically successful open access publishers such as PLoS and Biomed Central, which charge author fees often in the region of thousands of dollars per article. High profile initiatives are all very well, but if scientific publishing is to be improved, it requires business models proven to be both workable (and scaleable, so to be of relevance of science publishing more generally), and firm evidence that the proposed untested and unproven model is better (and not worse) than the existing system, and also tangibly solves real problems. Today’s announcement by the Howard Hughes Medical Institute, the Wellcome Trust, and the Max Planck Society unfortunately does not yet do that.