Navigating the World of Open Access Scientific Publishing

In recent years, new online only, open access scientific journals have been popping up at an alarming rate. Some of these journals are respected publications with quality peer review processes in place. Others, unfortunately, are focused on making money rather than on disseminating science. As a scientist deciding where to submit a paper and where to look for the latest science breakthroughs, understanding the world of open access publishing is more important than ever.

The Rise of Open Access and Predatory Journals

In the past decade, open access journals have gained attention and popularity with authors, readers, and funding agencies. Instead of depending on library subscriptions for revenue, open access journals charge authors or their sponsors or institutions for either submission or publication of their work. Funding agencies, such as the Burroughs Wellcome Trust and HHMI, provide funds to their grantees to publish in journals that allow for open access because they want to make the results of the work they fund available to the public as soon as possible. Authors funded by other agencies, like the NIH, can pay for open access from their grants, and some institutions pay open access fees for papers submitted by their researchers. Scientific publishing involves significant expenses, from running an editorial office to the copy editing and typesetting of manuscripts. The question is: who pays? At one extreme, there are no charges for authors, and all expenses are covered by institutional subscriptions. At the other extreme, open access, all expenses are paid by the authors. For funding agencies like the NIH, this amounts to whether the funds come out of indirect costs to research institutions which maintain the libraries, or out of direct costs to investigators in the open access model. Biophysical Journal is positioned in between these two extremes, with the costs of publication shared between authors (page charges) and institutions (subscriptions).

While the open access journals do accomplish the goal of making scientific findings free for readers, their business model has lowered the bar for entry into publishing and made it easier than before to start up journals of varying quality. In the past journals depended on revenues from library subscriptions, which came only after a journal had established some history and reputation after papers were both published and cited. In fact, the journal Impact Factor was originally created as a way to choose which journals to include in a citation index and subsequently marketed as a means for libraries to determine which journals to purchase. In contrast, open access journals, which derive their revenue up front from submitting or accepted authors and their sponsors, begin receiving revenues as soon as they open their submission site. And since the money comes from submissions and publications, the journals have added incentive to solicit and publish as many papers as possible. The low barriers to starting a new journal have resulted in journals that often provide only cursory peer review, as well as some “predatory journals” entering the marketplace. These journals often have names similar to longstanding publications, which can be confusing and misleading to scientists.

The Biophysical Society and Biophysical Journal (BJ) editors receive submission requests from new biophysical journals (and biophysical-themed meetings, too) weekly, most of which have no real peer-review or biophysicists involved. These journals solicit highly-regarded scientists to “serve” on their editorial boards to add credibility to their publications. How many of you have received email invitations from new online only, open access journals to either submit a paper or serve on their editorial board? How many have received invitations to speak in new meetings being organized by unheard of groups or groups with names similar to organizations you know?

The problem has become so significant that, according to a recent New York Times article, it is now challenging for institutions to assess the value of publications listed on applicant curriculum vitae (http://nyti.ms/16GyiKY). Nature recently published an article on the same topic that included a checklist for conducting due diligence to requests from journals (http://www.nature.com/news/investigating-journals-the-dark-side-of-publishing-1.12666).

Evaluating a Journal or Meeting Prior to Submission

In this new world, scientists need to do their due diligence prior to submitting a paper to a new journal or agreeing to serve on an editorial board. Many have found that once they agree to serve on the board of a suspect journal, removal of one’s name from the masthead is difficult.

When solicited, remember that your name on the masthead or your name as an author or speaker will be used to induce others to submit papers. Is this a journal or meeting that you feel comfortable promoting? How will this impact your scientific reputation? Is this how to best help your students and postdocs learn how to conduct research and become responsible members of the scientific community?

Look at the fine print. Who is behind the publication/meeting? Is it a reputable publisher? Are there scientists you know on the board? If so, reach out to them and see if they have actually done any review for that journal or been involved in any decisions. Does the journal publish everything it receives? Often, in the predatory journals, names are used to add prestige but the individuals have nothing to do with the publication. Jeffrey Beall, a librarian and researcher from the University of Colorado in Denver has compiled and continues to update a list of suspect journals and publishers, which is accessible at http://www.academia.edu/1151857/Bealls_List_of_Predatory_Open-Access_Publishers.

The Role of Societies

Professional scientific societies have long served as advocates for their specific fields and also for the larger good of the scientific enterprise. The Biophysical Society’s mission, to disseminate and promote biophysics, has always upheld the value that the dissemination must be of good science, conducted ethically. This mission carries over into its stewardship of BJ. While authors have the option of paying for open access for a paper published in BJ, the papers undergo rigorous peer review by scientists conducting biophysical research. Papers submitted for open access publication in BJ undergo the exact same review and editorial scrutiny as all other papers. That is what the Society’s imprimatur guarantees. And the Society, through its meetings and publications, will continue to ensure that scientific integrity is maintained in the biophysics it disseminates. In the broader context, however, the Society’s role is also to keep its members aware of the changing world of scientific research and provide information that will help them make effective decisions outside the confines of the Society’s programs. As open access publication continues to grow in complexity, we will continue to keep Society members informed of its evolution and its implications.

June 2013 Table of Contents