Unlike any other category of writer or author, scientists seldom
make money from seeing their work in print. Instead, being published
in a scientific journal is a means to an end, to communicate
research findings with peers.
This significant difference left scientific publishers looking
distinctly exposed when the rise of the internet gave scientists
direct access to their readers - other scientists.
Sure enough, journal publishers have come under pressure from
initiatives inspired by scientists who wanted their work to be
freely available. Perhaps the best example is PubMed Central, a web
site set up by the National Institutes of Health, the prestigious US
biomedical research body, with the aim of creating a single
repository of all published biomedical research.
Publishers were invited to make their journals available free on
the site. To date very few have agreed to do so, and mostly at least
six months after publication elsewhere.
PubMed Central also wants to add value, by allowing scientists a
single point of entry to an online medical library, providing tools
so they could search across all journals, and access related public
databases such as those holding gene sequences or protein
Meanwhile, the Public Library of Science (PLS), a scientists'
pressure group, began a campaign to make scientific literature
freely accessible to scientists and the general public, "for the
benefit of scientific progress, education and the public good."
Since November 2000 more than 30,000 scientists from 177
countries have signed an open letter from PLS, urging publishers to
allow research to be distributed freely by independent, online
public science libraries. The PLS called on signatories to boycott
journals that did not comply.
Publishers have also been subject to a moral imperative to allow
free access to scientists and clinicians in developing countries. At
the instigation of the Secretary General of the United
Nations, Kofi Annan, the World Health Organisation approached six
of the leading journal publishers to make their research available
on Health InterNetwork, a UN programme to improve health in
developing countries. As a result, the Health InterNetwork Access to
Research Initiative (Hinari) was launched in July 2001.
The founding members are Blackwell, Elsevier Science, Harcourt
International (since acquired by Elsevier), John Wiley and Wolters
Kluwer. Between them they have made 1,500 journals available free to
institutions in countries with a gross national product per capita
of below $1,000, and at a reduced rate in other developing
Then, in February this year, George Soros, the financier and
philanthropist backed a new effort to provide free and unrestricted
access to the literature, launching the Budapest Open Access
Initiative with a $3m grant.
Traditional scientific publishers also came into competition with
new, virtual rivals, most notably, BioMedCentral, the first
internet-only scientific publishing company, which arrived on the
scene promising not only that there would be no hard copy version of
its journals, but that all its information would be free.
BioMedCentral gets its revenue from advertising and an article
processing charge of $500, payable by individual scientists or their
institutions, for manuscript production and editing costs.
The company, based in London, further challenged traditional
scientific publishers by saying it would use end-to-end electronic
processes to cut the time taken to publish an article to no more
than eight weeks. For printed journals it is not unusual for it to
take six months or more for an article to be published.
These, and other moves put traditional publishers in a spin,
leaving them to argue that they are not merely a conduit for
disseminating scientific papers, but add significant value, not only
through the intellectual input of editing them, but also in running
the peer review system by which articles are subjected to the
scrutiny of scientific peers.
Mary Waltham, formerly president of Nature, and managing director
and publisher of The Lancet, and now an independent consultant
advising publishers on their electronic strategies, says the
fundamental value that publishers add is still needed on the
"I see no influence on the concept of peer review, only on the
process. Peer review may be more mechanised, but it is not going
away. After all, formal publication in peer-reviewed journals is
still what career progression depends on."
Like most old economy companies, scientific publishers had to
defend themselves against the threat of virtual competition at the
same time as reformulating their business models to take advantage
of internet technologies to cut costs and become more efficient. The
sector is very fragmented with many very small publishers without
the means, or the know-how, to publish electronically.
Scientific publishing is the specialism of one of the few
successful venture-funded dotcoms, Ingenta plc, which spun out of
the University of Bath in May 1998. It manages and distributes
research via the net and hosts e-journals for publishers.
The company's services include data conversion to electronic
formats, secure online hosting, access control, collecting pay-per
view payments and distribution services.
Ingenta is not in competition with established publishers says
Mark Rowse, chief executive. "When the net began to evolve,
publishers were confused about if they needed to control the
"We're providing a service which is analogous to printing and
distributing a printed journal."
Ingenta manages 12m articles from over 5,400 online publications,
and is accessed by over 5m researchers a month via Ingenta.com, or
links from other websites. The company claims nine of the top 10
leading scientific publishers as clients, including Elsevier with
1,428 publications (see article on Elsevier's ScienceDirect
online service on the FT-IT website, www.ft.com/ ftit), and
Blackwell with more than 600.
Adding the e-channel has increased publishers' costs, but going
online is pushing up revenues. In the six months ended March 2002
Ingenta's turnover was ý7.1m, of which 20 per cent came from pay per
view. "This is coming from people who aren't subscribers, so
although the revenue is shared with us, it is beginning to represent
significant new income for publishers."
Scientists are also demanding aggregation, so they can search
across all titles from a single point.
Mr Rowse says that although publishers have resisted such moves,
they are becoming more reconciled. "They see it a bit like being in
the Yellow Pages if you are plumber. They want to be in it, but have
to accept that they will appear alongside their competitors."
Ms Waltham agrees that in the past two years publishers have
become less nervous of aggregation. "For small and medium
publishers, scientific portals do allow them to reach bigger
markets. And there is now a recognition that the Journal of Keyhole
Surgery.com can't expect readers to flock direct to its web