No barriers for science, please

22 februari 2012 - “We are now publishing 73% of our journals open access, while five years ago it was zero. It has increased dramatically. Ten of these are fully open access already.” Jason Wilde, commercial director of the Nature Publishing Group discusses hot issues like open access, research fraud and the global R&D-revolution.

"NPG itself has different models in which we publish the relevant academic content,"  Wilde explains the role the academic publisher has given itself in the discussion around open access. While some journals, like PLoS ONE and its SURF Research Day keynote speaker Cameron Neylon, are propagating full open access, NPG believes in a more subtle approach, a more  'hybrid model' with a variety of different ways of publishing.

"I believe that an industry that has a mixture of different business models is the future. Probably we will not see a scenario developing with everything done through open access or everything only available by subscriptions."

Why do people use different brands of cars?

"Nature itself for example still doesn't have an open access option. Open access works if it's for a broad audience, if the title itself is a big megajournal for instance. Nature has on average around 400.000 readers for print and almost 2 million online per month, but we publish on average 15 articles a week. These articles are selected from publications coming from around 1000 authors. 95% of the content proposed to us is rejected for publication."

To explain this differentiation in publishing models, Wilde uses the example of the car industry. "Why do people use different brands of cars? That drives their decision making on what car to purchase and what not in different circumstances. For scientists there are also different motives. You want to get published as simple as possible, or to be published because it helps your career a lot. Those motives or reasons lead to very different outcomes"

Jason Wilde by Monique Kooijmans

Jason Wilde (foto: Monique Kooijmans)

"NPG has always worked with scientists, so we know their demands and motives. You have to consider as well the revenue-model which is most appropriate in an publication. Do you charge the author or the reader? There are different models to look at, different streams of revenue to consider which is best in which situation. Our idea is to spread costs over many different types of revenue. If there are many more authors to readers it makes sense to spread the cost over the authors and if there are many more readers to authors then it makes sense to charge the readers, for instance through subscriptions."

Wilde believes - in contrast to PLoS ONE-editor Neylon - open access will remain one of the models available for publishing. "I don't think only one model will become totally dominant. It will be the scientists who drive that development, not publishers. PloS has shown that their business model is working, but there are still people who want to protect their work, want to have control over it to protect the ownership of their work."

China the next logical step

The petition against the recent legislation such as SOPA and the RWA therefore get the support of NPG. On principle primarily. "We are opposed such legislation. There shouldn't be barriers in the communication of science. Those legislations go against everything science stands for."

In the world of scientific publishing things have not only changed when you consider publishing models. The scientific world also witnesses a geographical shift. "China is the place of significant interest to every publisher. In the 90's we opened an editorial center in Tokyo. By then we had two editors, now it's hundred. China is the next logical step for us."

Problems in language proficiency are a reality, but not a permanent barrier, Wilde notes. "The language of science is English, also in China. We do however provide a digest, or abstract, in local languages if needed. Texts written in terrible language are a hindrance, but this is not a matter in considering 'do we publish or not'. If in manuscripts, the language is a problem, NPG editors will help as much as they can to improve the language."

As well as China, the rest of the BRIC-countries does attract a lot of attention to NPG. India and Brasil are becoming major nations in educations and science. But Wilde points out in particular to the development in Russia. "The situation there is changing significantly. While it was focused on really hardcore science in the Soviet era, it underwent a collapse afterwards. We now see a big shift. Russia is  starting to rebuild its infrastructure in science and is making a remarkable comeback."

Within these BRIC-countries, Wilde notes a growing popularity of a concentration on applied sciences as this is easier for some growing economies. The focus on 'hard science' had diminished and this raises some fundamental questions. "There is a growing economic point of view when looking at the value of doing science. That poses an important question: if all nations want to 'score' by applied activities who will be doing the fundamental research? Because we do need this: if you rule out doing the fundamental stuff, you will never get far in being successful in innovation and applied science. Even if there is no immediate application or commercialization of the scientific research as such."

Thematic journals over disciplinary journals

The urge for applied sciences can also be seen in the amount and type of academic journals being published by NPG. "If you look at NPG itself, for example in the multidisciplinary area of chemical biology, you see a very encouraging development. When this journal was launched it brought three primary research manuscripts a month. So it was a very small area of science, but we could see this that was an field which was gathering momentum."

"Today this area has grown significantly and the journal is publishing ten manuscripts a month. So it has become clear that we identified an important area of scientific research and have , over the last seven years, worked with the community to build an important journal. You have to keep asking yourself and scientists whether we do serve the needs of all issues of research and science this way."

Within this development of more interdisciplinary journals instead of more specific disciplinary publications Wilde witnesses a shift to publications with a thematic focus. "Climate change for example is a subject that goes beyond disciplines. We want to get the scientists together and new journals and types of publication can serve this."

According to Jason Wilde this development of very complex, interdisciplinary approaches points to another significant shift in science. The question "what is the data behind this?" in those areas of research is becoming more important in order to bring the differing scientific traditions and analysis together.

How to respond to fraud?

Cameron Neylon addressed this development as well in his opening keynote address of the SURF Research Day. He stated that open access publishing should also help in publishing all the data behind researchitems, including 'failed research'in order to learn from that as well. Wilde likes this uncommon approach as open access to all data could be a way to give room for other researchers to "reïnterpret the data on their validity."

Openness on data has another important aspect: the fight against scientific fraud. In Dutch science this issue has become painfully topical recently. Wilde however warns against overestimating the magnitude of this problem. "Access to data might be a solution to see if there are doubts or even fraud."

NPG-editors already use different 'instruments' to check whether scientists are trustworthy in their work. "If we believe something is not valid, is wrong even, you can raise questions and address the worrying elements. When this leads to uncovering really false aspects in a research of publication a paper will be have to be withdrawn. But we have concluded that not that many papers are withdrawn. It is such a small amount. Cases of fraud are rare so the current system does work very well and has been shown to work well for many, many years."