My posting on Friday about the clashing values of academic institutions and businesses prompted a comment from Bill Hooker about linking to his blog posting about the pricing structure at BioMed Central (BMC). His comment and the e-mail I received this morning from BMC (reproduced below) got me rethinking about the nature of open access publishing.
What is BioMed Central?
It is a business. It has advertising (even an “Sales and Marketing Director” listed on its “In-House Team” page) and it generates revenue for services beyond the per-article charge at the time of publication. As the e-mail below says, one can purchase “direct emails and keyword search term sponsorship” from BMC. To the best of my understanding of U.K. tax law, it is not a registered non-profit organization. (Its contact page says BioMed Central Ltd is “a company registered in England and Wales with Company Number 3680030 [...] and having VAT number GB 4662477 23.”) In its FAQ page “How does BioMed Central make money?” BMC describes revenue-generating possibilities:
As a publisher, BioMed Central obviously has to be profitable to survive as a service for the biomedical community. We believe that if we add value to raw data, we are entitled to charge for access to it. If a journal commissions topical or thematic reviews, and so helps individuals orientate themselves amidst the complexity of available research, it may have a subscription charge. Furthermore, if we construct and maintain community alerting services, allowing users to discover where, in the eyes of their peers, quality and significance lie, we will charge. An example of such product is Faculty of 1000. We are also carrying advertising on our site, and we will be creating other products and services for which a charge will be made.
I think it is safe to say that BMC is well within the relm of what can be characterized as a “business.”
Compared to PLoS
Another larger player in the open access publishing arena is the Public Library of Science (PLoS), and it serves as a good point of comparison. Number six of its nine core principles is labeled “Financial fairness”:
As a nonprofit organization, PLoS charges authors a fair price that reflects the actual cost of publication. However, the ability of authors to pay publication charges will never be a consideration in the decision whether to publish.
In contrast to BMC, PLoS is a 501(c)(3) Public Charity under the U.S. IRS tax code. As a consequence it files an IRS form 990 that allows us to see the details of its operation and gauge whether there is an undue burden on revenues based on expenses. PLoS lists ways to contribute to its effort, including individual contributions and institutional membership/sponsorship.
In my own mind, I had equated “open access” with “not-for-profit” — and in the case of BMC this is not the case. I had thought that open access was universally like PLoS’ model. Just to be clear about this, I’m not saying that academic values are good and business values are bad. I am saying that we should not expect businesses to act based on the values that drive academic institutions and that we shouldn’t be surprised when businesses behave like businesses. I was surprised to learn that BMC is a business.
Perhaps BMC is ultimately a “better” model. Does the revenue from advertising and direct marketing to registered users ultimately drive down the cost of per-article publishing? Do the subscription (pay-for) services offered by BMC not interfere with access to the underlying article data? (
Here’s a good question: can one take the open access article data from BMC and construct competing value-added services? Based on reading point #8 in BMC’s Terms and Conditions, it would appear not. Update 20070815T0907: The answer to this question is yes, one can. See the first comment by Matt Cockerill, followed by my reply and Matt’s announcement of changes to the Terms and Conditions page that, to my reading, makes points eight and nine of BioMed Central’s Terms and Conditions much clearer.) These are all questions to be answered as the open access model evolves.
I would be curious to learn in the comments if others thought that “open access” equated to “not-for-profit”. It is entirely possible that I’m the only one, in which case this jester just made a fool of himself.
This is the e-mail that arrived in my inbox overnight:
From: "BioMed Central Advertising" <firstname.lastname@example.org>
Subject: BioMed Central August News and Offers
Date: Mon, 13 Aug 2007 11:24:29 +0100
News from BioMed Central
15% discount on all direct emails and keyword search term sponsorship booked before 28th September 2007!
Did you know that with BioMed Central you can choose to target your direct emails by institution type, specialty, country, techniques used and job title? Did you also know that you will be guaranteed to get maximum exposure from your emails as well as getting good value for money?
10,000 email names with targeting selections would be $3750 but with a 15% discount this will only be $3187 saving you $563!
BioMed Central web ads offer you a bigger impact than advertising on search engines.
Why not try a keyword package?
Advertise on search results when your keyword is used.
Choosing 5 keywords or phrases would be $1000 for 6 months but with a 15% discount this will only be $850.
New Portal and Gateways!
New portal from BioMed Central highlights importance of open access to scientific and medical literature for the developing world. Sponsor the new Open Access and Developing World portal and be part of increasing access to the scientific and medical literature for those in the developing world.
Contact BioMed Central today at email@example.com or on +44(0)20 7631 9168 – or reply to this email for more information.
You have received this message in a belief that it would be of interest.
If you would not like to receive any further messages from BioMed Central, please reply to firstname.lastname@example.org with the word “remove” in the subject line.
BioMed Central Ltd, Science Navigation Group, Middlesex House, 34-42 Cleveland Street,
London, W1T 4LB, United Kingdom
The text was modified to update a link from http://www.plos.org/about/principles.html to http://www.plos.org/about/what-is-plos/core-principles/ on November 8th, 2012.(This post was updated on 07-Nov-2012.)