Open letter on open access

F1000 founder and chairman Vitek Tracz addresses a former Faculty Member’s critique of our subscription service.

Casey Bergman recently resigned from his membership of F1000 and posted an explanation of his reasons for this action. When he contacted us about his resignation, I wrote him a note, cc’d to bioinformatics Section Heads David Lipman and Janet Thornton, excerpted below. We are reprinting this because there has been a Twitter conversation about Casey’s blog post, most particularly around the issue of open access.

    “I am saddened that you have decided to leave the F1000 team of Faculty Members, and I take seriously your criticisms of the limited value you feel the service provides to its users in identifying significant papers. I do not quite agree with them, and I am happy when the occasion comes to discuss these with you, but I can assure you we do work hard to make the service better, more systematic, more comprehensive and improve it in many other ways.

    What I want to address here is what seems to be your main reason for resigning, namely that you think F1000 is committing some mortal sin by charging subscription and not being free to all. The Open Access model of publishing was developed by us and others to ensure that research findings are available free and without restriction to all. It was made possible by changing the model of charging the reader to one charging the author, or rather in both cases the relevant institutions and funders. This model cannot apply sensibly to providing information that is not primary research findings. The relevant institutions would not accept a scheme like that and in my opinion rightly so. If we want to provide a range of “secondary” services in an organised way, services that actually require significant investment to make them happen, we must fall on the option of charging the reader. If someone will find a way to do it without charging anyone (such as the examples you plan to support from now on rather than F1000) and do it better, we will just lick our wounds and go away quietly. Until that time, a very large team here and the many thousands of Faculty of 1000 members will continue to do what we can to do the best possible evaluation system we can invent.”

We take any criticism of the usefulness and value of the service F1000 provides seriously and we work hard to improve it. The service is used by many researchers who do find it valuable. It has been designed to provide something similar to peer review for published research findings to alert researchers to papers that acknowledged experts in the relevant fields find interesting, with short evaluations giving their reasons for the choice. All the evaluations are signed. We are trying to ensure a comprehensive and systematic coverage of the literature by a selected community of experts. The selection of Faculty Members is done in a way similar to the selection of referees to research articles – by existing Faculty Members, especially heads of faculties and sections, suggesting new members. This is consciously designed as an editorially organised scheme rather than “crowd sourcing” commenting on papers. Both, we feel, have benefits, but our structured approach demands significant effort and investment.

Many of us have been involved in introducing and developing Open Access to publishing research results in biology and medicine. I, and many of my colleagues in F1000, have been involved in launching BioMed Central, as well as collaborating with others in making OA the reality it is today. This was done against the wishes of many interested parties, including established publishers, learned societies, and many researchers who saw it as potentially undermining existing systems of publishing. We have invested and risked more than anyone in trying to find a sustainable commercial model for OA, without which we felt it would be in danger of failing.

OA is not free. In the somewhat closed system of the research community, where all involved both write and read research papers, all the services are paid for primarily by the funders and institutions. The importance of changing the traditional scheme of “readers pay” to “authors pay” was not to destroy commercial publishing, but to find a way to ensure that access to research findings is universally free. OA is not necessarily significantly cheaper than traditional publishing, and it is paid for by the same funders and institutions that pay for traditional publishing. The reason that OA succeeded (after quite a long time and significant changes to the methodology) is primarily because the funders of research decided it is in their interest to insure broadest distribution of the research findings they paid for.

I do not believe it is possible or reasonable to convince funders and institutions to pay for all publishing and other services to the research community and offer them to all users freely, and the idea that there is something immoral in offering services by subscription is wrong. Developing a service like F1000 is very expensive (we are working on it for a long time and we are yet to break even), and if we do find that the need for it is not sufficient we will simply not survive. If other services will grow which can provide the same or similar services free to all, we will be unnecessary and will have to admit defeat. This is always the risk of developing a new service as it was when we started BioMed Central. At this point we do feel convinced that we are offering a service of quality and value, that we can respond to the changing needs and grow a service worth having.

We do plan to start publishing primary research findings in the near future (we are now going through intensive discussion with many researchers about how best to do this, and have started a related repository of posters), and all this will be fully Open Access and financed the same way OA publications are financed today. We believe that it is essential for primary research findings to be free to all, and we also believe that there is a place for publishing groups to develop paid for secondary services (books, reviews, teaching, etc.). The research community needs both.

    [F1000 editor-in-chief Sarah Greene writes: Now, and until Jan 3, we invite readers to peruse the entire library of over 115,000 evaluations without charge, to judge the caliber of recommendations written by our 10,000+ Faculty Members and their Associates. Meanwhile, we wish our Members and subscribers a happy new year and many thanks for their continuing support and thought-provoking comments.]
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Filed under Open access, Open data, Open Science.


  1. Jim Woodgett says:

    In an era of decreasing scientific funding, shrinking library budgets and massive expansion of published articles, the “value” of curation is increasingly difficult to pin down. On the one hand, libraries are trying to focus their depleting resources on primary subscription-based journals and, ironically, don’t benefit from Open Source since they are effectively cut out of the equation (access via the Internet). On the other, researchers are increasingly looking for filters to help concentrate relevant information and to avoid missing important papers. How might curation be supported yet be accessible? People will pay for what they perceive has value to them. Increasing the quality of curation without increasing costs (an on-going process) and allowing micro payments so that individuals at institutions that do not provide library-paid access, might help – as might providing free weeks every so often (not necessarily over the Ho-Ho-Holiday period….).

  2. ferdinando boero says:

    Surely there is no such thing as a free lunch. I work for free for F of 1000 but, in return, I have fun and I have access to the evaluations of the other Faculty members. I concur that, having the choice of subscribing to a journal OR to F of 1000, I fear that the choice would go to the journal. There is already a great fight between Web of Science and Scopus to sell scientific information, and these are used “a priori”, in respect to F of 1000. It might be a fine commercial strategy both for F of 1000 and for the publishers if the evaluated articles might be available directly in PDF. It happens to me that reviewed papers are not available: if I want to see a paper and I am not connected through my departmental server, then the paper is not visible.
    I see that journals are praising the fact that their articles are reviewed by F of 1000. And also authors are putting F of 1000 reviews of their products in their curricula.
    Knowing that having a F of 1000 subscription gives access to all the reviewed articles is an incentive to pay for the subscription.
    Publishers are selling their stuff in bundles now, and Departments subscribe to all the titles of a given publisher. Especially if the subscriptions are online. Maybe F of 1000 should enter in one of these bundles, but then it would lose its independence.
    In economics, they say that the value of something is linked to the willingness to pay for it by those who want it. Apparently, everything is free in the internet, but then we pay by giving up information about ourselves, in reading advertisement and the like. Nothing is free. And the salary of the people who are running F of 1000 must be paid by somebody, because I have the feeling that it is a full time job!
    By the way, the free subscriptions to the colleagues of the Faculty members are a very nice gift.
    You might make older evaluations (e.g. one year and more) freely available. Many journals do so. You pay to be up to date, but you do not pay to see the older stuff.

  3. Mr. Gunn says:

    I think F1000 is a fabulous service and one of the only places where real, substantial post-publication peer review is happening. I wish all online commentary on scientific articles were of the caliber of F1000 reviews. Given that quality post-publication review is essential for the success of the next phase of open access, I think there’s a lot other publishers could learn from what and how they’ve done it.

    I also think there’s a greater diversity of funding models than just author pays/publisher pays/subscribing institution pays. Certainly publishers would leap at the chance to pay for F1000 exposure if it drove significant traffic. Subscribers would also pay for a service that helped them find the best material if it integrated nicely with their workflow (i.e., paper recommendations surfacing in Mendeley, one click addition to their library, etc). But looking beyond that, trade associations and companies, just as one example, might also be interested in contributing in order to get a better view to how their content is being used.