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An Open Letter to the Members of ASH: Your Membership Dues, Blood, and Open Access to the Scientific Literature

As a result of a major public relations effort by the Public Library of Science (PloS), you may have heard quite a few arguments in favor of “Open Access” for journals. Isn't it a no-brainer to support completely free access for all readers worldwide? Where does ASH stand on this issue?

In a nutshell: ASH supports free access to Blood on the broadest possible basis. However, the Society cannot adopt or support a publishing model that is not economically sustainable over the long run, is not fair to all authors, and may not be free of undue government influence.

Members' access to Blood is immediate and complete:

Part of your ASH membership dues goes to support your journal, Blood. In return, you get full and immediate access to every article in Blood Online, including all back issues (currently going back to 1990, with plans in place to go back to 1946, the year the journal was founded). Moreover, you get a very early – three months prior to print publication – full view of all accepted articles through Blood's First Edition (these are the raw manuscripts). And twice a month, you receive the print version of Blood in the mail. There are no barriers to access for members of ASH.

Broader access for the hematology research community worldwide is substantial:

Most hematologists or scientists working in closely related fields who are not members of ASH, including those in other countries, have access to Blood through their academic libraries – more than 3,200 libraries worldwide subscribe to Blood. Some researchers have access through individual subscriptions. Those working in low-income countries are granted immediate free access to the online journal through the WHO-sponsored HINARI program. This program, in which ASH participates, serves 99 countries with almost 1,000 institutions.

Any clinical article published in the “How I Treat” section is free at the moment of publication. So are the Inside Blood pieces that summarize important advances and often build a bridge to clinical content. In this way, breakthrough studies that could immediately help patients and their families are freely available to everyone on the day of publication.

In addition, all of Blood's back content becomes free to anybody in the world, whether or not associated with a subscribing library, as soon as it is 12 months old.

Articles that are less than 12 months old and require a subscription are accessible via a pay-per-view option. An interested reader can immediately gain access to an article for a modest fee.

So the only content in Blood that is not free immediately to the entire world is the current 12 months of articles. The reason is that library subscriptions finance a major portion of the journal operation, nearly 40 percent. No library, already strapped for journal funds because of the high price of commercially published journals, would pay for content that is free.

The business model that supports Blood is multifaceted, and this is its strength:

If you are an author of an accepted paper, you pay page charges of $50 per page. With the average article being eight pages long, the basic cost of publishing in Blood is $400. There is an additional charge for publishing color illustrations, and we ask authors to share about half of the actual cost. If Blood were published online only, the cost per article would be about $2,700. The current cost of publishing a Blood article in print and online is $5,100 on average. How does the journal make up the difference?

Blood – like most high-profile society journals (all of which are not-for-profit) – also gets significant revenue from print advertising (largely due to its clinical component), library subscriptions, non-member individual subscriptions, commercial reprints, and permissions. In a typical society journal, you can expect to find that the revenues that support the peer review process – editing, production, online hosting, and distribution – derive from some mixture of these sources, depending on each journal's particular market potential. The pie chart below shows how not-for-profit society journals with a clinical component are funded under the prevailing economic model.

The advantage of funding under this model is that the journal's costs are supported by multiple segments of the research community – authors, readers, libraries, pharmaceutical companies, and society members. One income stream may fluctuate due to conditions beyond the journal's control (e.g., advertising revenues vary greatly from year to year, depending not only on overall economic conditions, but more importantly on the availability of new FDA-approved drugs). However, there is stability in the overall system and predictability as to annual income and costs.

The Open Access model puts the financial burden exclusively on the authors:

The Open Access business model depends exclusively on author charges, a model which raises several significant questions. Is the model economically sustainable? Is it fair to all authors? Does it protect peer review as the arbiter of science?

An example of the Open Access business plan at work would be the recently founded flagship journal of Open Access, PloS Biology. Authors, through their granting agencies or out of their own pocket, must pay what is described as the entire cost of publication, $1,500 per published article. In actual fact, a grant from the Roger and Betty Moore Foundation in the amount of $9 million provided start-up funding and is most likely used to sustain the operation. It is not clear what the journal intends to do after the grant money runs out.

Open Access proponents claim that the U.S. Government, through its funding agencies, will pick up the author charges. However, even if this were the case, it would not solve all problems.

For example, more than half of Blood's authors are from other countries. Virtually no papers in Blood are fully funded by the U.S. Government (none in the most recent three issues of Blood), with 33 percent partially funded by the U.S. Government.

Will research agencies worldwide actually increase grant allocations to cover the cost of multiple publications that may result from a research project? Some have promised to do so (e.g., Howard Hughes Medical Institute, the Wellcome Trust, and the Max Planck Institute), yet that does not remotely cover all authors in all countries: A survey of three recent issues of Blood with a total of 162 research articles had 201 “other” (i.e., non-U.S. Government) sources of funding!

Other questions about the proposed model for publication funding are troublesome. Government control over the funding of journals could lead to improper influence on publication decisions, with the politics of the day rather than the peer review assessment of the science being the final arbiter of what gets published. Journals, robbed of their current diverse sources of income, would favor publishing more papers, regardless of quality, in order to survive economically.

More worrisome perhaps are the ethics surrounding corporate funding of research. Pharmaceutical companies would most likely be glad to fund publication as well. Is that desirable?

Librarians view society journals such as Blood favorably:

Librarians welcome any change that reduces the cost of subscriptions, but their critical attention is focused on the big commercial publishers, not on the self-publishing society journals like Blood.

It is the commercially owned journals that have very high subscription prices, some in the $10,000 to $25,000 range. In the past, their price increases were often obscenely high: between 20 and 40 percent. These for-profit journals rarely carry advertising and do not charge authors page or color charges. Their “pie” tends to be 100 percent institutional subscriptions.

Librarians still believe that the best existing economic model for journals is that offered by society journals like Blood, where the costs are spread among users, and where librarians are paying a very fair price for very heavy usage in their libraries. Electronic publishing has actually driven down the “cost per use,” the chief metric used by librarians. For example, at NIH, in the print-only days, Blood recorded fewer than 70 print uses per month. With unrestricted online use, NIH now gets over 7,500 downloads of Blood articles per month!

Blood is used widely. Overall, Blood Online recorded 3,227,242 full-text downloads in 2003 – an indicator of exceptionally wide distribution, usage, and access.

In conclusion, the Society's and the Editor's goal is to have Blood be as open as possible to serve its community of members, libraries, readers, and authors without jeopardizing the publication itself.