Technology is a continuous game-changer for publishers, even those in seemingly traditional sectors. Recent events in scholarly journal publishing are notable examples of what can happen over time. This week’s announcement by John Wiley & Sons, one of the biggest journal publishers, that it would start publishing open-access journals is an important domino to fall. “Open access” is an alternative, internet-based business model in which subscriptions are free, but authors are charged fees to publish, typically ranging from $500-$1500 per article. This flips the traditional business model for which commercial publishers have long been criticized for charging high subscription prices to what are captive audiences – academic and research institutions that must have access to the leading research in a myriad of fields. While the open access model generates less revenue than the traditional, subscription-based model, it can compensate to some degree by being born digital – therefore never being saddled with the costs of publishing in print.
Wiley’s move is an acknowledgement that open access journals have succeeded. In biology and medicine alone, the number of articles published in open access journals has exploded over the last decade from only about 1,800 articles in 2000 to over 56,000 articles in 2010, according to the National Institutes of Health, National Library of Medicine, and National Center for Biotechnology Information. Though they haven’t driven any established journals out of business, new open access journals have taken hold, especially in the sciences, where there is a rapid expansion of knowledge.
Another key element of journal publishing, peer review, may be radically changed, also thanks to the internet. Peer review has been the sine qua non of all high-quality journals, whether traditional or open access. Peer review panels, typically comprised of a handful of experts, vet journal articles before they are accepted for publication. The reviewers’ identities and comments are usually kept confidential. Now there’s a nascent movement to replace peer review with an open process in which anyone – researchers, authors, and readers — can comment openly on an article. This is a radical idea, and it has plenty of critics. But one reason to take it seriously is that it’s being promoted by Vitek Tracz, a veteran innovator and successful serial entrepreneur in scholarly publishing, and one of the drivers behind the success of open-access publishing. He has organized a growing network of leading scientists called the Faculty of 1000 or F1000 that has 10,000 researchers and clinicians who rate and comment on articles in biology and medical research. If successful, F1000 could transform peer review from a closed, one-time, pre-publication event into a continuous, open discussion among researchers, authors, and readers. Some people have called it “the Facebook of science” and it just might be. Right now F1000’s reviewers cover just 2% of all published articles in the biological and medical sciences, but every successful information business starts small.