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A Conversation With BioMed Centralís Cockerill on Open Access Publishing
Posted On November 12, 2013
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BioMed Central (BMC), one of the leading open access (OA) and STM publishers, announced in mid-September that Matthew Cockerill, managing director, would be leaving the company at the end of the year. BMC was founded in 2000 and was acquired by Springer Science+Business Media in 2008. Last month, I had a chance to sit down with Cockerill to talk about some of his experiences with OA and STM publishing.

Involvement in OA and STM Publishing

Cockerill’s involvement in OA stems from his broad passion for science: “I always had a combination of scientific and technical interests.” He was considering a computer science degree, then focused on physics before eventually being seduced by molecular biology, completing a Ph.D. in the lab of biochemist Tim Hunt. But the timing was serendipitous: “I was finishing up [the Ph.D.] around 1994–95, exactly when the first web browsers were taking off and beginning to influence how biologists were sharing information and how biological research was being conducted.”

He was at the point of leaving the U.K. for postdoctoral studies at Stanford University in biomedical informatics, when his Ph.D. advisor suggested that Cockerill speak to Vitek Tracz, who was then involved in the first generation of web-based scientific publishing. At that point, Tracz had been experimenting with “early iterations of AOL and [was thinking about] how such an online community model could be applied to science.” The result was BioMedNet, which described itself as “an online club for biologists and medical researchers.” Cockerill became so interested in “how biologists might communicate online” that he decided to defer his postdoctoral studies for a year and instead get real-world experience within the publishing industry—a temporary detour that has since turned into a career.

“One of the things I’ve enjoyed most about my career in publishing … is that I’ve still been able to collaborate with academics working in all the areas I was interested in,” Cockerill reflects. He notes that working in STM publishing has been a way to help take some of the ideas coming out of academia relating to structuring biological knowledge and put them into practice in the real world, citing the collaboration between BioMed Central’s journal GigaScience and the ISA tools dataset standards project as a recent example.

The late 1990s proved to be an exciting time for scientific publishing. While working with Tracz and BioMedNet, Cockerill was involved in taking traditionally published content and turning it into early websites that included new functionality that was not possible within the printed environment. For instance, reference lists from articles in the Current Opinion review journals, in which authors annotated and rated key references, were merged with MEDLINE to create a free database known as Evaluated MEDLINE, which was a huge hit with users in those pre-PubMed days. The site also included HMS Beagle, an online journal containing science news and features, as well as a job exchange, discussion groups, and meeting groups. The Wayback Machine includes some snapshots of early versions of the BioMedNet site.

With growing interest in BioMedNet (the community included around 50,000 members by 1997), Elsevier acquired BioMedNet in 1998, and the organization moved from being a small startup to being part of a major academic publisher. For a few years, the community continued to grow—by 1999, BioMedNet had more than 470,000 registered users—yet, in retrospect, Cockerill feels the acquisition was “a mismatch because of [Elsevier’s] library focus,” whereas BioMedNet was a networking site for researchers. Quite simply, “[I]t was too early. [BioMedNet] didn’t have a natural home as part of a traditional science publisher.” The result was that Elsevier closed BioMedNet after a few years.

From BioMedNet to BioMed Central

In late 1999, almost immediately after Tracz’s noncompete clause following the sale of BioMedNet expired, Cockerill received a call from Tracz who shared an idea for a new research publishing model. It was inspired in part by the staggering success of PubMed, which had demonstrated that free access could unlock a huge potential readership, and it also built on Tracz’s experience with BioMedNet. As Cockerill explains, Tracz was wondering, “[C]ould there be a model for publishing scientific research without subscription barriers? That was the idea Vitek [Tracz] proposed. And it immediately made sense to me.”

Cockerill continues: “Publishing original research was an interesting area, and with the growth of the internet and the completion of the draft human genome transforming biology, it seemed the right time to do something new. But there were high barriers for entry for new research journals. Established players like Nature had 150 years of prestige on their side, while big players such as Elsevier had economies of scale and a global library sales force. How could a new publisher compete?”

Current Biology, launched in 1991 as a subscription-journal, was Vitek’s first venture into original research publishing, and though it eventually became a big success, it demonstrated just how tough it was to launch a new subscription-based journal. But we realized that Open Access was disruptive enough that it could change the game. … Open Access was, at the time, a unique selling point for authors. If they published with us, their research would be more accessible to more readers than [if they published in] even the most well-known subscription journals.” While OA was a boon for authors, it also “immediately solved the problem of how we were going to be able to compete in terms of sales channels—it just took the library sales channel out of the equation altogether—instead we would market directly to authors.”

To Tracz and Cockerill, it seemed that OA “was a mechanism that would facilitate the creation of new journals, and those new journals would then allow us innovate with the publishing process. By the late 1990s, publishers were taking their content and digitizing it and putting it online. But the weird thing was, the print version continued to drive things—all of the processes were built around print, color print charges, page limits—all of the print mechanisms. [All the other publishers] were doing pretty much the same thing online as they had been in print.”

Cockerill continues: “So we realized we could start new journals online, but also innovate in new ways. It was not just that these journals would be Open Access (a model made possible by online distribution), but that we would explore other things publishers hadn’t taken a risk with. If you have a peer-reviewed journal, why does it need to exist in print? So we said, ‘Why not just [publish] these journals exclusively online?’”

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Abby Clobridge is the founder of and principal consultant at FireOak Strategies (formerly Clobridge Consulting), a boutique firm specializing in knowledge management, information management, and open knowledge (open access, open data, open education). Abby has worked with a wide range of organizations throughout the world, including various United Nations agencies; private sector companies; colleges and research universities; nonprofit, intergovernmental, and multi-stakeholder organizations; and the news media. She can be found on Twitter (@aclobridge).

Email Abby Clobridge

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