Re: BioMed Central and new publishing models

From: Stevan Harnad <>
Date: Tue, 8 Feb 2000 15:24:33 +0000

On Tue, 8 Feb 2000, Mike Brown wrote:

> BioMed Central is part of the Current Science Group
> []. Current Science Group is an
> independent, privately owned publishing group and has no connection with
> Elsevier Science. In 1997 several companies within the Current Science
> Group (Current Biology, BioMedNet and ChemWeb) were sold to Elsevier
> Science, this may account for any confusion about ownership.
> BioMed Central believes that primary research should be available free to
> all, globally, and without any barriers to access. We believe the new
> technologies that are now available allow publishing of primary research to
> be done at very low cost and much more efficiently than before.
> BMC will develop technological and logistical methods to make the process of
> submitting, refereeing and publishing of primary research results on the web
> as efficient, fast and inexpensive as possible by making appropriate use of
> web technologies. This, combined with the avoidance of the costs associated
> with typesetting, printing, distribution and subscription collection make
> the process of publishing primary research results in BioMed Central very
> inexpensive. We will offer the service of publishing primary research free
> to authors.

I'm not entirely sure what this means: I am an author. I have an
unrefereed paper. I put it in BioMed Central and I now have an
unrefereed paper in a public archive. That is splendid, but I still
don't have a publication (in the relevant sense for peer-reviewed
scientific research). At best I have a vanity-press publication of
completely indeterminate reliability and quality.

So I also submit the unrefereed paper to a refereed journal; an
established refereed journal, for new journals are of the same
indeterminate quality as unrefereed papers initially.

The established journal referees my paper, requires revisions, I do
them, it's re-refereed, and after some more minor revisions it is
accepted. Now I have a refereed paper. The publisher makes my paper
available on paper and on-line for a fee (S/L/P), but I wish to make it
publicly available for free, so I put it in BioMed Central.

Now what need do I (or anyone else) have for BioMed Central's other
services? Perhaps a new publisher, starting a new journal, might
benefit from online refereeing software (most established journals have
developed or are developing their own).

I ask this explicitly for the sake of clarity, and so that BioMed
Central should not be confused with a journal.

I criticised PubMed Central for mixing up their agenda of freeing the
refereed journal literature (highly desirable) with another agenda of
competing with the established journals by trying to provide an

This would be both unnecessary and counterproductive at this time. Only
if the established journals continue to resist public self-archiving
(and do so successfully) will it be necessary to find an alternative.
Right now it is needlessly confrontational and divisive, giving authors
the impression that they must choose between for-fee established
journals and for-free new "journal/archives".

The truth is that they can have both: they can continue to publish
their papers in established journals, but they can also publicly
archive them in Open Archives.

PubMed Central, under publisher pressure, does not yet allow author
self-archiving, only archiving by journal publishers who are willing at
this time to give their contents away online publicly for free.
(Eventually, all journal publishers will have to do so; but for now it
is sufficient that they should simply not attempt to prevent their
authors, via copyright and embargo restrictions, from doing it for
themselves right now.)

So the question is: Will BioMed Central fill this gap in PubMed
Central, namely, that of allowing authors to self-archive both their
refereed prepints and their refereed reprints, in BioMed Central?
If so, it will complement BioMed Central and provide a valuable

But if BioMed Central merely hopes to compete with the established
journals, it will fail (or fail until/unless it becomes clear that the
established journals have successfully blocked public self-archiving of
the refereed literature, as it is already being self-archived in the
Los Alamos Physics ArXiv).

> We plan to make our revenue by offering additional services on the BioMed
> Central site that will guide scientists to the most important information.
> This is an area where we believe that there is a real opportunity for
> publishers to add value. BioMed Central will provide intelligent and
> systematic commentary and reviews, news and alerting services, databases
> with strong editorial component, and e-commerce services. These services
> will charge a subscription or per usage fee. Some of these services may be
> free to academics, and will charge only to commercial users (as SwissProt
> [] does currently, for example).
> Our commercial success will depend on our ability to provide the services
> members of the community need and want at prices they are prepared to pay.

This sounds fine (although a free, well-tagged online journal corpus
will already be quite well-navigable in its own right -- and most
review articles and commentaries are written by their authors with the
same motivation as "primary" articles, namely, to be given away rather
than sold).

> In the future we may offer paid services to authors, when requested, such as
> copy editing manuscripts by authors with insufficient command of English,
> help with manuscript mark-up for web publication (when authors prefer not to
> do this themselves using utilities we will provide for that purpose) and
> others.

Copy editing services are always welcome; and until better and easier
authorware is available for mark-up, that will be helpful too.

> Overall, BioMed Central plans to redefine the role of commercial scientific
> publishers by focusing on adding value, and offering services which
> complement the freely available original research literature of the future.

The "add-on" strategy is worth pursuing, for those who believe that
there are new forms of online expertise that publishers can provide
that will continue to be marketable -- as long as it is not used as a
pretext for holding the refereed literature hostage to access-tolls.
(Clearly this is NOT what BioMed Central is planning to do.)

But, apart from the market vagaries of online add-on services, the one
traditional service that the established publishers will still need to
provide (unless they insist on trying to hold access to the refereed
paper itself hostage to it) is refereeing itself: quality control for
content (peer review) and form (editing) and its certification (QC/C).

What authors will want to be assured of is the perpetuity of the
archive: What happens if BioMed Central's plans for supporting itself
should fail? Not to worry, for by that time there will be enough Open
Archives around to take over the load of preserving BioMed Central's
contents forever. Meanwhile, either way BioMed Central will have
contributed historically to hastening the research literature along the
road to the optimal and the inevitable.

Stevan Harnad
Professor of Cognitive Science
Department of Electronics and phone: +44 23-80 592-582
             Computer Science fax: +44 23-80 592-865
University of Southampton
Highfield, Southampton
Received on Mon Jan 24 2000 - 19:17:43 GMT

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