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A Conversation With BioMed Centralís Cockerill on Open Access Publishing
Posted On November 12, 2013
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The first BMC journals—the 60-plus BMC-series journals—were launched in May 2000. Cockerill explains, “We wanted to be sure every biologist and medical researcher would have an outlet to publish. The idea was to be completely comprehensive and inclusive. We would highlight the best articles, but we wanted emphasize the idea that all biological and medical research could find a home in one of the BMC-series journals, as long as the science was carried out in a sound way.” A major innovation in the BMC series was to “separate the two key questions asked during the review process—e.g., how reliable are the conclusions and also how interesting is the science?” By separating these two questions, the BMC series journals “were able to provide an efficient way to publish many thousands of articles each year, in a scalable and economically viable way.” A very similar model has since been adopted by a number of OA “mega-journals,” notably PLOS ONE, with great success.

Another advantage of BMC’s OA approach was that it helped to make a success of interdisciplinary research journals. Cockerill explains, “One of the benefits of Open Access has been to help break down disciplinary barriers. It used to be that if you were a cardiologist, you might only read cardiology journals. But not anymore.” Several interdisciplinary areas in particular have thrived under OA: “A journal we launched in 2008, Biotechnology for Biofuels, has done exceptionally well. It brought together diverse areas such as genomics, agriculture, microbial fermentation and process engineering”—areas which would be difficult for a subscription journal to cover as the audience of potential readers is so diverse. Another area that has thrived under OA is veterinary research. Cockerill observes that there is “a huge crossover between research on humans and veterinary research, but the traditional veterinary journals are only really subscribed to by veterinary schools. Open Access solves that problem. You can publish about veterinary science and publish in a veterinary journal, but your [research] can be found in PubMed Central. You can see that in the way our veterinary journals have thrived, increasing both their Impact Factor, and the number of manuscript submissions under the Open Access model.”

Introducing the BMC Business Model

Business models and revenue streams have been a staple in conversations around OA since its earliest days. “When we started at BMC, [we knew that] there was essentially no incremental cost to giving more people access once [a journal is] online. What this meant was that there’s no inherent need to have a per-view charge. There were lots of possible ways costs might be recovered without restricting access,” Cockerill explains. But the question remained: “Could it be financially viable to produce high-quality publishing without charging readers?”

Initially, BMC did not charge any fees. “No one quite knew how much revenue would come from advertising in an online environment, and Vitek [Tracz] was also keen to try other models—such as charging for additional added-value content that might help subsidize free access to research articles. After a few years, though, we decided to experiment with having a direct ‘article processing charge,’ typically paid by out of the author’s grant funds or by their institution. It seemed the most natural and scalable model,” he says. This model was advocated by the Wellcome Trust, an organization involved in supporting global health research. Cockerill explains that the Wellcome Trust published some influential white papers on the economics of scientific publishing. They looked into questions such as whether it was feasible to treat the cost of publication—including peer review and dissemination—as part of the cost of doing research, incorporating it into planning processes and grants.

From the Wellcome Trust’s research, it appeared that 1%–2% of what was being spent on research should be sufficient to cover publication costs. Cockerill describes the situation: “Switching to [paying for publishing up front] seemed to offer a more attractive model for the funder, because looking at the overall macro-economics, the same amount would be paid to cover the same publishing services, but it would result in universal access for the many, rather than pay-walled access for the few. As well as serving Wellcome’s charitable mission by increasing access to knowledge, this also had the potential to make the funder’s research spending more efficient. If a funder is spending money to advance the frontiers of human knowledge, anything that gets in the way of access to existing knowledge is a hindrance. Sure, a researcher could try to find that article in the library or could email the author [to request a copy of an article], but this all slows down the research process. When the Wellcome Trust came out and said they would prefer to treat [publication costs] as part of the cost of research, it was a key milestone for Open Access.”

Cockerill notes that “the most important thing is that the two models [subscription and open access] have basically the same cost base, they’re both feasible, but one delivers universal access and the other doesn’t.” During the last 10 years, the industry has been grappling with this issue of “how to get to the point of universal access.” Cockerill thinks progress in getting to universal access is being made, but we still aren’t there: “Current estimates have us at close to 50% of publications with some form of free [access], somewhere at some point,” either through journals or repositories. The amount licensed “through Creative Commons with re-use licenses has been growing rapidly but is still a smaller percentage”—this slice of fully open content covers 10%–15% of publications these days.

Springer as an OA-Friendly Publisher

Over the years, BMC has grown from being an upstart OA publisher to a major player in the field. Cockerill feels that “when BMC was acquired by Springer [in 2008], it felt like a turning point in establishing a secure place for Open Access in the hard-nosed world of STM publishing … [Springer] saw the OA model we had built as offering a viable, sustainable and worthwhile business-model. Before Springer acquired BMC, [many people] thought OA was a nice idea but not feasible. Springer acquired BMC just as BMC broke even. Up to that point, everyone who looked at BMC and PLOS [Public Library of Science] didn’t see long-term viability. But the acquisition by Springer demonstrated that OA was set to become an important and sustainable part of publishing.”

Cockerill continues: “When Springer acquired BMC, they were intent on keeping the identity and culture of a young company and the high growth rate of BMC and were looking for ways to make sure that was fostered within Springer. Acquiring BMC had benefits across Springer without needing to immediately change anything to try to ‘Springer-ify’ [BMC]. That was a smart move. But it has also become clear over time that the BMC model isn’t just a nice add-on anymore; open access is going to be a crucial aspect of Springer’s core business going forwards.”

That’s why, Cockerill says, it makes sense that BMC will now be a more fully integrated part of Springer. As stated in a recent BMC press release, “Open access is now at the heart of Springer’s strategy, and with BioMed Central delivering an increasingly substantial fraction of the company’s growth, the time is right to fully integrate BioMed Central into Springer to ensure that the full potential of open access publishing at Springer can be achieved.”

Cockerill thoughtfully expressed mixed emotions at this next stage of BioMed Central’s integration into Springer: “It’s sad but great. It’s the best possible indicator of the success of BMC and of Open Access in general that it needs to be central to Springer’s strategy and fully integrated. It isn’t just the BMC portfolio anymore [of Open Access offerings at Springer]—there’s also SpringerOpen and Open Choice. These are some of the most rapidly-growing revenue streams for Springer; OA is too important to be just an add-on. And the continuing growth of Open Access is good news for Springer, given that they’re the most Open Access-aware of the major publishers.”

What’s Next for Cockerill?

On a personal level, Cockerill explains that he thinks “this is a natural point at which to hand off what is now a well-established business and to start thinking about the other challenges facing biomedical researchers.” He talked about “matching the possibilities of technologies to the needs of the researchers. … It’s not just about sharing published research articles, but finding better ways to share and make use of the vast streams of data that are now being generated.”

Cockerill will be staying on with BMC through the end of the year and isn’t yet talking in specifics about what’s next. Even so, Cockerill was quite excited when considering the future: “Big data is of course the big buzzword right now. The biomedical area is producing petabytes of data. There’s lots of technology being thrown at it, but there are still lots of silos of information which need to be better integrated to advance scientific knowledge and improve healthcare. We need to bring it all together, so data can be combined, visualized, re-analyzed and interpreted, to drive advances in knowledge and to deliver better therapies. It’s a fascinating space which is full of opportunities and I’m looking forward to again being involved in a field at an early stage of development. There’s something challenging but rewarding about that.”

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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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