Open Access’ Future

As the largest scientific society currently existing, the American Chemical Society (ACS) serves many purposes for chemists, as well as scientists in other disciplines. It organizes national and regional meetings where researchers can present and share their data, provides members with job listings, offers educational training opportunities. Perhaps most importantly, it publishes a wide range of esteemed peer-review journals. These are critical for any researcher looking to publish work in the chemical field, and are the main method of sharing verified data with the world. However, this knowledge comes at a price and in order to obtain access to these articles, universities and other research institutions/industries must pay exorbitant fees. Journals are accessible in both a hard copy and online format, and in some cases can cost up to $40,000 per annual subscription. These prices have reached the point that in 2012 Harvard University wrote to its faculty members to say that ‘major periodical subscriptions cannot be sustained,’ calling the situation ‘untenable’ as the memo stated that the school library paid approximately $3.75 million dollars annually to journal publishers.

As a result, there has been a call for open access journals, which charge researchers an article publishing cost to publish papers but do not charge for availability, making publications freely accessible to the public. The breakdown of fees on both sides can be found in this 2013 Nature article: Open Access: The True Cost of Science Publishing, as author Richard Van Noorden points out: “For researchers and funders, the issue is how much of their scant resources need to be spent on publishing, and what form that publishing will take. For publishers, it is whether their current business models are sustainable—and whether highly selective, expensive journals can survive and prosper in an open-access world.”

As a publisher of these ‘highly selective, expensive journals,’ the ACS has become notorious for resisting the movement and at one point actually hired a PR firm to handle this opposition. Yet in November of this year, ACS Publications new open access journal, ACS Central Science, will begin accepting manuscripts for the 2015 launch. A few weeks ago it was announced that University of California, Berkeley, professor Caroline Bertozzi was named editor-in-chief of the publication and stated, “Access is critical. We have an opportunity to present chemistry in a much broader way and to educate the world about the centrality of chemistry in science and technology.” The widely revered Nature Publishing Group (NPG) also recently gave notice that, as of Oct. 20, 2014, the journal Nature Communications will only be accepting open access submissions (though at approximately double the article publishing cost of other journals). This announcement followed the results of a 2014 study indicating that open access articles tend to have slightly increased citation numbers and visibility when compared to articles published in traditional journals. The online-only Nature Communications is fairly new, having launched in 2010, yet still has an extremely high impact factor (i.e., highly cited), and the transition of such a big-name journal to open access echoes the sentiments of Bertozzi as these two behemoths of scientific publishing begin to move in this new direction.

Fellow University of California, Berkeley, professor Michael Eisen has long since been a proponent of open access publishing, and in 2001 founded the Public Library of Science (PLoS) to publish a variety of open access journals. Eisen is a tenured professor of genetics and also a Howard Hughes Medical Investigator, a prestigious assignment. Yet despite his personal success with publishing solely in open access journals, there is still a general stigma in the community against these lower impact journals when compared to traditional high impact journals such as Science, Cell, and others. (New Science publisher Kent Anderson remains staunchly against open access.)

The fact that the ACS and NPG are creating open access opportunities indicates an effort and desire to change this, however an interesting point is that ACS Central Science is currently being advertised as a “multidisciplinary, fiercely selective, open access” publication, though two of those adjectives already describe the well-established flagship ACS publication: the Journal of the American Chemical Society (JACS). Whether the two journals will grow to be on par with each other or if Central Science will eventually turn into the lower tier version of JACS will depend on how willing researchers are to embrace open access. The success of these new journals will be closely watched, as the number of submissions and resulting citations will be indicative of future directions of science publishing.