iPubSci: An Alternative to Unaffordable Science Journals
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may not be as difficult as it would first appear. After all, Apple was able to get Sony, Warner Music, EMI, and many other music labels to agree to provide the musical content that populates iTunes. They then expanded this effort to get companies like MGM, Disney, Lionsgate, and Paramount to provide film and TV content as well. These organizations all recognized the changes taking place in their industry, and they made the decision that their future was tied into a different sales and distribution system. Journal publishers will hopefully come to the same conclusion.
Why would the various publishers of science journals agree to a common pricing structure and to make their content available via iPubSci? They have a great opportunity here to make money on articles that they are currently not getting paid for because they are being accessed by “other” means, as described above. It’s time for an innovative, well-funded, entrepreneurial organization (Apple would be an obvious choice, but Google or Microsoft could do this as well) to strike a deal with Elsevier, Springer, Wiley, Nature, and other publishers to provide the scientific literature that they hold in trust to the worldwide research community. The organization that builds iPubSci needs to be one with considerable clout and deep financial resources. Reaching this agreement with the publishers is obviously critical in getting this system to work. I’d be happy to work with any company that is committed to fulfilling this vision.
As a business, the concept behind iPubSci has one significant advantage over iTunes: for most of the content provided, there is simply no other way to obtain it. Those wanting to be entertained by Beyonce’s latest hit can purchase it from iTunes, but they can also buy it from Amazon or Google, pick up the CD at their local music store or check it out from the neighborhood library, or view the video for free on YouTube. In contrast, there are no other outlets (beyond academic libraries) for the majority of materials to be offered via iPubSci, aside from purchasing the journals themselves at their currently exorbitant rates.
Why would journal publishers currently enjoying a monopoly want to switch over to such a system? Two forces are acting against them. The first is the rise of free open access journals, as detailed above. Secondly, digital content lives in a world, according to Free: The Future of a Radical Price by Chris Anderson, where prices of bits are dropping rapidly. The conversion of journals from physical objects to PDF files enables this transformative process. By making the downloading of science documents relatively inexpensive and easy, the creator of iPubSci will add many more customers to their services. Apple was able to lure large numbers of customers away from free (but illegal) file sharing sites by making iTunes easy to use, the content reasonably priced, and enabling users to download only the exact content that they wanted. The same thing can happen with the scientific literature, where users may only want to read two articles out of 25 in a particular journal issue. Why should they be forced to buy the other 23 articles that they’re not interested in?
Journal publishers can still make additional money on top of the income they will earn from iPubSci. Many of them offer other value-added products that make it easier to gather or collate information from various newsletters and databases. For example, Elsevier sells access to its Scopus and Inteleos databases along with a wide variety of newsletters. This “value-added” or freemium model is used in a number of other businesses to generate revenue when another product is provided at either no cost or at a very low price. With the current scientific journal-publishing model, however, you pay a high price for both the journals themselves as well as the value-added extra content.
Scientists contribute to the “lack of affordable journal access” problem by choosing where they will publish their articles without considering the affordability of that journal to departmental, campus, or corporate libraries. The key criteria traditionally used by researchers in choosing where to publish are the perceived prestige of the journal and the speed with which their article can be published. This is understandable since publishing has long been considered one of the most important measures (publish or perish!) employed in academic tenure decisions. Consider publishing your articles in open access journals. Doing so will put additional pressure on for-profit journal publishers to make a deal and support the iPubSci model.
Funding agencies also impose some conditions on where authors choose to publish their work, such as the NIH Public Access Policy. Investigators that are NIH funded must submit their final peer-reviewed manuscripts to PubMed Central upon acceptance for publication. The aim is to ensure that the public has access to the published results of NIH funded research no later than 12 months after publication. A similar program is in place in the UK. Articles accessed via iPubSci would meet these same criteria, as put forth above, if the NIH also funded them.
Publishing research articles is a complex enterprise that encompasses the domains of science, business, copyright, distribution, and open access (among others). The purpose of this commentary was not to solve all of the problems that currently confront both publishers and consumers of scholarly articles. Rather, the intent was to provide a new model framework, iPubSci, which might be used to address a number of the outstanding issues. It is clearly designed to address the two that I think concern scientists the most: access and affordability.
Defining a new path forward is often the first step in solving a problem. If you seek a change in the status quo, then make your thoughts heard. Share this article with your colleagues, the publishers, your librarians, and entrepreneurial organizations (especially those that I suggested above) to let them know that the time for change has come. Submit your papers to open access journals. If you support the concept of iPubSci, please “Like” it and leave a comment on our Facebook page. I’ve even reserved a placeholder website for hosting iPubSci. Let me turn to Margaret Mead once more for a final thought: “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.”