Open access in biomedical publishing: from initial failures to current successes Vincenzo Della Mea

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Open access in biomedical publishing: from initial failures to current successes

  • Vincenzo Della Mea

  • Medical Informatics, Telemedicine & eHealth Lab

  • University of Udine, Italy


  • Quality attitudes

    • Authorship
    • Impact Factor and other measures
  • The age of NetPrints

    • A short season of enthusiasm
  • PubMedCentral

    • Forcing free access
  • The present status of Open Access

    • BMC, PLoS

The importance of publication

  • In biomedical scholar literature, attention is paid to issues regarding quality

    • Objective quality of the journal
    • Authorship
  • Publication is the basis of career

    • influence of publication on curriculum
    • No one works (i.e., writes) for free

All authors are equal but some authors are more equal than others

  • Author P, Author S1, Author S2, Author S3, Author S4, Author S5, Author S6, Author CF. Some Nice Title. High Impact Journal 1:23-45, 2006.

    • Author P = Principal Author
    • Author CF = Coordinator aka Head of Department, or Grant owner.
    • Author S* = did some work
  • Being first/last author in a paper is ~considered in researcher' evaluation

  • However, this is not formalized in any way

Impact factor

  • The impact factor of a journal is an indirect measure of the quality of a paper

    • It's measured before submission
    • It's not the impact factor of the paper
    • impact factors correlate poorly with citations of individual articles
      • Seglen PO. Why the impact factor of journals should not be used for evaluating research. BMJ 1997;314:497.
  • However, it is very visible and easily communicable

    • The opposite of "I don't care to belong to a club that accepts people like me as member" (G.Marx)

Impact factor/2

  • The journal where to publish a paper is chosen:

    • having in mind its impact factor
    • and the perceived value of the paper itself
      • Paper not excellent: submission to lower impact factor journal, to avoid cycling through rejections
      • Or: I choose for the cycle…
  • however, impact factors depend on the research field

    • Generalist journals: higher impact than specialistic journals
    • New England Journal of Medicine, British Medical Journal, The Lancet (+biological journals, more recently)

Problems: authorship

  • Gift authorship

    • Flanagin A, Carey LA, Fontanarosa PB, et al. Prevalence of articles with honorary authors and ghost authors in peer-reviewed medical journals. JAMA. 1998 Jul 15;280(3):222-4.
    • ~Solution: clear authorship criteria
      • Contributors: JK and JU had the idea for this study and designed the protocols for data collection. JK analysed the data and wrote the first draft of the manuscript. JU contributed to the analysis and writing of the paper. MT and BHS participated in structuring and revising the manuscript.
  • Authorship proliferation

    • King JT Jr. How many neurosurgeons does it take to write a research article? Authorship proliferation in neurosurgical research. Neurosurgery. 2000 Aug;47(2):435-40.

Problems: impact factor

  • Inflated impact factor

    • Smith R. Journal accused of manipulating impact factor. BMJ, Feb 1997; 314: 461
  • Duplicate publication

    • Freischlag JA. An unfortunate preventable complication: duplicate publication. Arch Surg. 2006 Feb;141(2):119.
  • Sooner or later, almost all papers are always published (on lower impact journals)

    • Ray J, Berkwits M, Davidoff F. The fate of manuscripts rejected by a general medical journal. Am J Med. 2000 Aug 1;109(2):131-5.

Other problems

  • Negative results bias

    • Harewood GC. Assessment of publication bias in the reporting of EUS performance in staging rectal cancer. Am J Gastroenterol. 2005 Apr;100(4):808-16.
    • Littner Y, Mimouni FB, Dollberg S, Mandel D. Negative results and impact factor: a lesson from neonatology. Arch Pediatr Adolesc Med. 2005 Nov;159(11):1036-7.
  • Developing countries

    • Sumathipala A, Siribaddana S, Patel V. Under-representation of developing countries in the research literature: ethical issues arising from a survey of five leading medical journals. BMC Med Ethics. 2004 Oct 4;5:E5.
    • Horton R. Medical journals: evidence of bias against the diseases of poverty. Lancet 2003;361

Market conservativeness

  • The journal market is conservative, because new journals do not have an impact factor in the very first years of life so they are rarely chosen as publication means;

  • furthermore, obtaining an impact factor is often not easy

    • Problems for non-english or 'poor' journals
  • These are problems also for open access journals…

  • Unless the journal starts with some prestigious editorial board or sponsor or owner

A free resource: PubMed

  • With the aim of improving doctor's education,

  • Since many years NLM funds and manages PubMed/Medline,

    • a very large bibliographical database
    • Freely accessible
    • Including ~ 16 millions articles (reference data + abstract)
    • (before the Web, fax-based service)

The age of PrePrints

  • Following the Physics ArXiv experience,

    • In 1999 BMJ presented the NetPrints Archive
    • And The Lancet did something similar (Eprints)
  • Great discussion…

    • But just some tenths of NetPrints
    • And very, very few comments and responses (which should be the added value of preprints!)
  • Nobody works for free:

    • comments and responses, to be useful, should be as accurate as good referee comments, which are work in exchange for prestige.
    • In the same way, letters provide useful comments to authors but are usually regarded as small publications useful for the letter writer's resume

E-Biomed (now PubMedCentral)

  • In 1999 Harold Varmus (NLM) proposed to host scientific articles in a common, free archive (E-Biomed)

    • Publishers not glad:
    • Relman AS. The NIH "E-biomed" proposal--a potential threat to the evaluation and orderly dissemination of new clinical studies. N Engl J Med. 1999 Jun 10;340(23):1828-9.
  • E-Biomed eventually evolved into PubMedCentral:

    • Some publishers voluntarily provide for papers
    • Eventually after some delay (6-12 months)

A good example

  • British Medical Journal (general, weekly, owned by British Medical Association) is freely accessible since many years

    • Initially, also free submission
    • Now author fees
  • … and very recently, back to paid access for some articles

    • Original articles still free

Budapest Open Access Initiative

  • 2002

  • Principles of open access

    • Open access to peer-reviewed journal literature
    • Self-archiving
    • …and new open access journals
  • "author pays" model

    • A list of developing countries not meant to pay

Open Access publishers

  • BioMedCentral

  • Public Library of Science

  • Journal of Medical Internet Research


  • Independent publisher since 2001

  • 158 open access journals

    • Quick review
    • Reward for reviewers (discount on publication)
    • JMIR: extra fee for fast track -> salary for reviewer
  • Many already having impact factor

    • Prestigious publisher
    • So, pressure on Thomson/ISI for inclusion in the journal pool
  • Article processing fees

    • 480-1380 € (depending on the journal)
    • Some still free (the newest, usually)

Open access and impact factor

  • We would continue to target BMJ, Lancet, JAMA in the first instance...this is standard with our unit and the work we do [trials]. (…) There is huge motivation for researchers to pursue publications in journals with the highest impact factors. If open access had an effect on impact factors then we would move on in the long term but in the short term we would continue to target the same journals

  • I might. It has to do with the impact factor whether I am willing to pay. That [the impact factor] determines a lot

  • Shroter S et al. Perceptions of open access publishing: interviews with journal authors. BMJ 2005;330:756


  • Open Access is gaining momentum

  • Quality, or perceived quality, is fundamental for the acceptance of open access journals and author fees

    • The most immediate measure is still impact factor.

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