The Magazine Rack: Commercial Publishers’ Forays into Open Access

By Steve Black, Coll. of Saint Rose, Albany, NY

Conflict between rising subscription rates and academic libraries’ limited budgets has generated lively discussion since the early 1980s. The emergence of the Internet as a medium capable of easily providing journal content for free has changed the dynamic of the debate over whether publishers charge too much for resource-strapped libraries. Online-only carries no printing costs, no shipping costs, no need to track who’s paid for what. But there’s a problem with the free for all business model that’s come to be known as Open Access (OA). There are still substantial costs for producing the first copy of each article (editing, peer review, copyediting) plus the significant costs of maintaining a stable, searchable web presence. Gallons of virtual ink have been spilled over the issues surrounding the desirability and sustainability of OA. An excellent source of information is Peter Suber’s SPARC Open Access Newsletter.

In this column, I focus on two publishers’ recent efforts with the so-called Gold OA model. SpringerOpen launched June 2010, and SAGE Open launched this April. These new projects are significant efforts by large commercial publishers with successful track records of charging traditional subscriptions for access. Their Open Access projects are of interest to all librarians because some of the new journals have broad appeal. Besides, if a patron should ask, it’s good to know about Open Access so you can explain why some journals are free and others aren’t.

What is Gold OA?
Gold OA means that all articles are immediately available for free from the publisher’s website (and often subsidized by author fees to cover publication costs). The alternative form of Open Access, Green OA, is when authors post a version of their work on a personal or institutional website, typically after a postpublication embargo period. Some early advocates of OA predicted a revolution that would overturn traditional journal publishing. But it now appears more likely that OA will be an important niche in the overall market for scholarly periodicals. Journalist Richard Poynder recently figured that about ten percent of the world’s academic and scientific literature is available in Gold OA journals and that another 20 percent is archived as Green OA articles (“Open and Shut? Open Access by Numbers”). If commercial publishers embrace Gold OA, that portion could increase.

Before addressing the new Gold OA projects by Springer and SAGE, it’s worth noting that several publishers currently allow authors to pay upon publication to make their papers OA. The paid Open Access option provides free immediate access to a paper published in a journal that’s otherwise limited to subscribers. SHERPA’s RoMEO lists publishers who offer paid options.

One of the earliest and largest Open Access publishers is UK-based BioMed Central (BMC), founded in 2000 for the express purpose of publishing journals on the Gold OA model. In 2008, Springer Science+Business Media acquired BMC. What they learned from BMC’s expertise was used to create SpringerOpen, a collection of OA journals published under Creative Commons Attribution License. This essentially means that authors retain copyright, and readers may share, adapt, or even make commercial use of the work so long as the author is attributed. As of June 2011 there are 49 SpringerOpen journals. BioMed Central publishes 217, including seven cross-listed with SpringerOpen. Although BMC is wholly owned by Springer and they share offices in London, the two publishers retain their distinct brands.

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Most of SpringerOpen’s journals are highly specialized and will only be of interest to patrons of academic libraries, but a few may attract a general audience. They publish several titles for the European Sustainable Energy Innovation Alliance (ESEIA) including the forthcoming Energy, Sustainability and Society (ISSN 2192-0567). Also of potentially broad appeal is the new journal Psychology of Well-Being (ISSN 2211-1522). Both journals have created editorial boards and are now accepting manuscripts. Upon acceptance the authors are responsible for paying $1,140 in article processing charges. Time will tell if enough authors choose to use their grant or institutional money to sustain these SpringerOpen journals.

The June 15, 2011, issue of LJ includes an interview with Blaise Simqu, CEO of SAGE Publications. Along with interesting comments about the future of print and costs of online publishing, he explains that SAGE partnered with Hindawi to learn more about how Open Access works. Their effort at Gold OA is SAGE Open. It works the same as SpringerOpen, except instead of organizing the content as a collection of journals on specific topics, SAGE has chosen to create a single megajournal covering all of the social and behavioral sciences and the humanities, somewhat in the vein of similarly broad OA journals like PLoS One, and Scientific Reports from the Nature Publishing Group. Topics in the first issues are all over the place: statistical analysis of Jews’ DNA, women’s political participation in Ghana, Margaret Fuller and Carl Jung, volatility in Asian stock markets, the film Lars and the Real Girl.

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Bob Howard, SAGE Executive Director of Social Science Journals, responded to my question about the concern that the focus is too broad to give SAGE Open a distinctive brand. He said, “The social sciences are extraordinarily interdisciplinary, so one of our hopes is that SAGE Open will encourage researchers to look outside of their traditional discipline for content. We view SAGE Open’s breadth as a genuine strength and something that will be a vital part of its ultimate distinctive brand. More practically, we believe that our ‘browse by subject’ feature on the SO site will allow people to find content relevant to them.”

I was also curious how the editors will handle choosing peer reviewers for such a broad range of disciplines. Howard explained that an editor employed by SAGE consults with an editorial board, which in turn gets support from an advisory board. Members of the boards help the in-house editor select article editors to handle peer review of each manuscript. So there are many people involved. The cost to authors is less than SpringerOpen. SAGE’s publication fee is currently a special introductory rate of $195, which at an undisclosed future time is slated to go up to $695. SAGE’s website states that authors who do not have the means to cover the publication fee may request a waiver. Their well-developed FAQ is worth reading if you’re curious about their project.

The OA efforts by commercial publishers Springer and SAGE are worth keeping a close eye on. If these larger commercial publishers can keep their OA journals going and make some money doing so, Gold OA can be expected to flourish. If not, it’s likely the model of making content immediately free for all will remain a small (albeit important) niche within scholarly journal publishing.

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