Interview with Matthew Cockerill and Chris Leonard

Peter Suber wrote [Thanks!]:

Anna Winterbottom, BMC branches out: an interview with Matthew Cockerill and Chris Leonard, First Author, undated but c. January 6, 2007.  Excerpt:

BioMed Central (BMC)…has…continued to expand its range of services, most notably by launching two new portals that apply the BioMed Central model to the physical and chemical sciences. Chemistry Central was launched in October this year [2006] and hosts its own generalist Chemistry Central Journal as well as seven other open access publications….Its eagerly awaited sister site, PhysMath Central, is currently in discussions with the academic community in these areas to develop new open access journals….

So, how has this revolution in open access changed the practices of its prophets, what are their predictions for the future, and what will be unique about the new services for the physical and chemical sciences amid their host of rivals? First Author spoke to BMC’s publisher, Matthew Cockerill and to the head of the new PhysMath Central service, Chris Leonard, to find out.

FA: A recent press release described BioMed Central as leading the way in open access: could you discuss how you view the future of the open access movement? How do you see BioMed Central changing as it expands its remit?

MC: Open access publishing took off first in the biomedical sciences. This may partly be because open resources like PubMed and GenBank alerted biomedical researchers to the benefits of open access. Other fields have different starting points…[T]here has been increasing recognition that the benefits of open access for the publication of original research apply in all fields, although the most appropriate funding model may depend on the field.

For example, rather than leaving it to individual authors to find funds to pay publication charges, CERN is working to create a consortium of research labs that will collectively fund open access publication for all particle physics papers….As open access publishing continues to grow in scale, both within biomedicine and in other fields, we imagine it is likely that such models will proliferate. Open access can be funded in many ways, all of which are compatible with the underlying goals of open access as long as they do not depend on restricting access.

FA: As open access goes mainstream will the ‘author pays’ model be sufficient to cover the costs of high quality publishing, especially given exceptions for authors in less wealthy countries and/ or institutions?

MC: In general, the cost of open access publication (around $1500 in a typical BioMed Central journal) is very reasonable compared to the amount that libraries spend on journal subscriptions. For example, OUP quoted figures recently that for every article it published in Nucleic Acids Research in 2003, it received $4224 of subscription revenue….Such comparisons suggest that the costs charged by open access publishers such as BioMed Central are very reasonable. They are also realistic and sustainable. We have worked hard to develop efficient online systems for running online journals and managing peer review, and as a result we can offer a high quality service at a very competitive price. We expect to break even within the next 12 months, and overall we believe that the efficiencies introduced by open access publishers such as BioMed Central have the potential to save the research community significant sums of money that are currently spent on over-priced subscription journals….

BioMed Central routinely provides waivers for authors in low-income countries, and this has not proved to be an obstacle to creating a sustainable business model.

It is also important to recognize that whereas authors in low-income countries previously had to get their work published in rich-country journals for that work to be read and cited, open access means that it is now feasible for local journals to achieve wider readership and impact….

FA: How would you respond to Nature’s recent claims that PloS has proved the model to be unsustainable without philanthropy? Do you have an opinion on hybrid models (in which the author can choose to pay to have their article freely available immediately) such as that piloted by the Royal Society?

MC: Starting new journals and making them profitable is hard work – that’s true for subscription journals as much as for open access journals….

PLoS’s approach initial approach was to start high-end journals which publish relatively few articles, and are expensive to run, but it is now broadening its remit with PLoS One, which should improve its finances.  BioMed Central has taken the broader approach right from the start. We have some journals which are highly editorially selective (Genome Biology and Journal of Biology, for example), but we have other titles such as the BMC-series which aim to publish all sound research, while highlighting the best. This has allowed us to create a business model which offers authors low publication charges, while also allowing us a realistic prospect of making a profit….

First Author spoke next to the head of the forthcoming PhysMath Central, Chris Leonard, about how the new service will meet the unique needs of the maths and physics community and learn from the experience of a technologically adept target audience….

FA: The physics and maths academic communities were pioneering in their adoption of open access. Notably, as you mentioned, with the founding of Arxiv. You also have experience in the commercial sector. How will you work with and borrow from the experience of both these sectors?

[CL:] We are a commercial company providing an open access service. From a commercial standpoint open access makes sense. Scientists are demanding it and it is almost seen as unethical in some fields to publish results in a subscription journal. It is difficult to see the future of subscription journals as rosy….

FA: You recently promised to take advantage of new technologies to communicate research findings clearly and to meet the challenges of the future. Can you give some examples of these technologies and how you believe they will change the ways scientists research, collaborate, and publish?

CL: Sure – this is one of the most exciting parts of working in open access. Not only can we develop tools and services around our data, but anyone can. All articles are available, for free, to anyone in fully-formed XML, so we hope to see some suite of services like ‚Google Labs‘ develop around this data.

However, for our part we intend to use new technology to support the scientific process in many ways. Apart from the tight arXiv integration already mentioned we are also going to use wikis with the editorial board members to refine the scope of the journals, journal blogs to inform everyone of editorial developments, OAI-PMH to update A&I services, RSS for journal content updates, multimedia to support the online text, comments from readers on each article, and we are very keen in working on ways to further structure and open up our data to other services. Other developments, such as ‚tagging‘ of articles and refining the peer-review process will be considered if there is an appetite for it from the community we serve.

There is also an increasing drive to make raw data of experimental results available alongside the article itself. For particle collision data, for example, this would be problematic given the sheer volume of data – but this barrier will come down with time and for some fields it is already possible to publish raw data, so we will be investigating this option in the coming weeks….