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Open Access Moves Into the Mainstream: BioMed Central Purchased by Springer
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Posted On October 16, 2008


STM publishing giant Springer Science+Business Media (www.springer.com) announced Oct. 7 that it had reached an agreement to purchase BioMed Central Group (www.biomedcentral.com), the leading global open access publisher, for an undisclosed price. The sale pertains to 190 journals published by BioMed Central (BMC), including PhysMath Central and Chemistry Central titles. The only exceptions are Journal of Medical Case Reports and Cases, which remain with Science Navigation Group (www.sciencenavigationgroup.com). While many industry watchers applauded Springer’s validation of open access as a successful business model, others had visions of the OA raft careening into Class 5 whitewater.

Open access (OA) publishing differs from traditional publishing, sometimes called toll-access (TA), in that it does not derive revenue from charging subscription fees to libraries, institutions, and readers. Many OA journals depend on sponsorship (from industry, foundations, or in-kind contributions of host institutions) or advertising for their operating expenses. Others require authors to cover the costs of publication on a per-article basis. In fact, the author fees, or article processing charges, are sometimes—but not always—paid by the grant funding the research being reported, by institutional memberships with the publisher, by sponsoring societies or hosting institutions, or waived altogether.

Why Now, Why Springer?

Though not without advance rumblings—a sale was foreshadowed in a Nature article by Declan Butler dating as far back as July—the sale to Springer nevertheless is an eye-opener. Launched in 1999 as part of Science Navigation Group (then called Current Science Group), BioMed Central has been a pioneer in OA publishing. All peer-reviewed research articles published by BMC are made accessible online without charge to readers and with no time embargo. They are also licensed to allow redistribution and reuse. The company reportedly achieved profitability in 2007. Industry insiders note that Science Navigation Group has a history of supporting early stage companies and then selling them off when they become established and successful. Vitek Tracz, chairman of Science Navigation Group, who acknowledged in a 2005 Information Today interview (www.infotoday.com/it/jan05/poynder.shtml) that he gets bored easily, "particularly … once things are running smoothly," sold his BioMedNet community website for life scientists to Elsevier in 1997.

A Springer link exists in Jan Velterop, the publisher of BMC immediately prior to its current publisher Matthew Cockerill. Velterop was publisher of the BioMed Central Group from July 2001 until August 2005, when he was hired by Derk Haank, who had left Elsevier to head up Springer Science+Business Media. (www.infotoday.com/it/sep04/poynder.shtml). As director of open access, Velterop added energy to Springer’s Open Choice option, which had been launched in 2004. Velterop left Springer in March 2008 to become CEO of Knewco, the company behind the OA WikiProfessional project.

Despite Velterop’s efforts, most library purchasers of STM journals have not heretofore associated Springer with promoting OA. But according to Derk Haank, Springer has gained "considerable positive experience since starting Springer Open Choice in 2004." Like several other OA options adopted by for-profit publishers (Wiley’s OnlineOpen, Elsevier’s Article Sponsorship program, SAGE Open, and Taylor & Francis’ iOpenAccess), the Springer Open Choice program does not support entire OA journals. The program simply offers authors the opportunity (after payment of a $3,000 article fee) to allow unrestricted access to their own articles for nonsubscribers of Springer’s journals on the SpringerLink journal platform.

Springer points out that the Creative Commons licenses for its Open Choice articles, introduced during Velterop’s tenure, have been seen favorably by the market. A representative acknowledged that the "few thousand" Open Choice articles Springer expects this year is still a modest number compared to the 125,000 total received annually, but it is still impressive and "certainly more than an average market share for the publishing industry." Indeed, according to a September report to the Association of Learned and Professional Society Publishers (ALPSP; www.alpsp.org), the proportion of publishers offering optional OA to authors has grown from 9% in 2005 to 30% in 2008, but the number of authors paying for any OA option remains "exceedingly low."

Reaction and Concerns

The announcement was made in a Springer press release jointly issued in Berlin and London. BMC publisher Matthew Cockerill informed journal editors of the sale in an email, assuring them that the BMC board of trustees, which will remain intact, "will continue to safeguard BioMed Central’s open access policy in the future."

Echoing the positive tone of the press release, the move was immediately and widely heralded by OA advocates as a victory. "Proponents of open access should see this as an unambiguously good thing—it puts to rest once and for all the canard that open access is a nice idea but not a viable business model," said Michael Eisen, assistant professor of genetics at University of California–Berkeley and co-founder of the Public Library of Science (PloS; www.plos.org), the not-for-profit OA publisher of PloS Biology, PloS Medicine, and others.

Writing in The Guardian (www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/2008/oct/11/pressandpublishing-internet), Richard Smith, former editor of the British Medical Journal and chief executive of the BMJ Publishing Group, called it "a great day for science" and possibly more important than the current worldwide banking catastrophe. Smith stated that now "fewer than 10% of scientific articles are published open access, but Springer’s acquisition may bring us to the tipping point where open access publishing will be the norm."

Jan Velterop noted in a blogpost (http://theparachute.blogspot.com/2008/10/open-access-day.html) celebrating Open Access Day (Oct. 14): "[I]sn’t it fitting that this week, at the Frankfurt Book Fair … the inclusion of open access publishing into the mainstream of science publishing is being presented? I’m referring of course to the take-over of BioMed Central by decidedly mainstream publisher Springer."

Rick Johnson, founding executive director and senior advisor to SPARC, expressed mixed feelings about the sale, wondering whether Springer will "put the same energy into the enterprise as the founders, who recognized the need to be advocates for openness as well as business people. I wish them well," he wrote, "but hope the authors and editors BMC assembled to support their journals will keep an eye on how the new owners run the business."

Article Charges

Keep watching. The most-voiced fear postacquisition is that BMC’s article publishing charge (APC) will go up. If subscription fees for STM journals could climb so dramatically in the TA model of publishing, what’s to prevent article processing fees from rising dramatically as OA achieves prominence as a business model?

BMC’s fees have doubled since it began, but the average is still below most competitors. A January 2008 comparison chart (www.biomedcentral.com/info/authors/apccomparison) shows BMC’s standard APC rate at $1,500–$1,700 (though some journals are higher and some lower) and Springer’s Open Choice fee at $3,000. Both Springer and BMC offered assurances that the acquisition would not trigger increases in BMC’s charges but that BMC would continue to adjust its charges over time in relation to various economic factors. Currently, the number of articles paid for by BMC member institutions is roughly the same as the number paid for by authors themselves. Full waivers of the fee account for less than 10% of the total publication.

Looking Forward

Few immediate changes are planned. Both Springer and BMC say that BMC will maintain its current headquarters until early 2009—a search is underway for new space in central London to perhaps share with other Springer U.K. units. There are no immediate plans for changes in the publication management system or hosting software of any of the journals, and no staff reductions are in the offing.

Springer’s interest in BMC was not limited to the OA business model. CEO Derk Haank stated in the press release that "we see open access publishing as a sustainable part of STM publishing, and not an ideological crusade." A spokesman later noted that the "outstanding portfolio" of BMC life science assets would better position Springer for continued success and organic growth, and he praised BMC’s reputation for innovation and great customer loyalty.

Springer will keep BMC as "a separate, autonomous unit" and "intends to invest and grow the business," BMC CEO Matthew Cockerill told me. Springer "has committed to an open access future for BMC to the satisfaction of the Central Board of Trustees, and indeed, this was a condition of the sale," Cockerill wrote in an email. In a FAQ for librarians that answers subscription and membership concerns (www.biomedcentral.com/info/libraries/springerfaq), Springer states unequivocally that BioMed Central’s research content will remain 100% OA.


Susanne Bjorner provides editorial services to publishers, librarians, authors, and researchers from her base in Spain.

Email Susanne Bjørner
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