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Open-access debate

Interview: Zulfikar Abbany
May 2, 2013

As chief editor of the journal "Nature Medicine," Juan Carlos López knows his company has to change as the open-access model of publishing research papers takes hold. But he questions the quality.

Scientist working at the laboratory. (Photo: Alexander Raths - Fotolia)
Image: Fotolia/Alexander Raths

DW: "Nature Medicine" is a subscription-based journal and only those who can afford it get access to the research you publish when it's fresh. But as you'll know, there's a growing push towards the open access model for scientific publishing. Open access means new research is available to almost everyone, almost immediately. Do you feel you will have to change your business model?

Juan Carlos López: Yes. This is not just my view. I think "Nature" is quite active in discussing open access. The first phase was about eight years ago when the public library of science was created and they wanted all information to be available as soon as it was published. For profit-publishers like "Nature" and many others, we're concerned about that because that's our core business. "Nature"'s strategy was to accept that this was important to all kinds of stakeholders, and we decided to have a conversation with those who were most actively pushing for open access. We put [our case] - the fact that we do a lot of filtering, so what we publish is of the highest quality. And that was very productive because the result was this 12-month period during which information can stay behind our paywall and then it becomes available. And now we have a second wave in which funders have got together and have reopened the same conversation. They include people like the Wellcome Trust, the Howard Hughes Medical Institute and the Max-Planck Society. These are people whose voice matters a lot. They have launched a journal that they want to showcase as an open access title. And, again, they are wondering why it is that certain knowledge needs to stay behind a paywall. I think we appreciate that the advance of open access is not going to stop. We realize that we need to find alternative models so that we can sustain our business and make knowledge freely available. But what that model is… we don't know. And in this case, it's not even that I could say to you that I'm not at liberty to tell you - we simply don't know.

What are the costs involved with publishing a journal?

Putting together a journal like "Nature Medicine" is quite expensive because of all this filtering we do. And currently, the open access model is not free either - somebody has to pay and in that case it's the author. The fees that journals charge are in the order of $2,500 (about 1,890 euros).

Juan Carlos López, chief editor, Nature Medicine (Photo: DW / Zulfikar Abbany)
Juan Carlos López, chief editor of "Nature Medicine"Image: DW/Z.Abbany

In our case, each paper would need to cost in the order of $15-20,000 and nobody is ready to pay for that. Now, looking into the crystal ball, it's also conceivable that there will always be a niche for the high-profile journals that have a subscriber-pays model. It's conceivable that you will always have this pyramiding, where people would be willing to pay for the top journals because they realize that they add something that the other journals don't add - the same way that for example there will always be a market for a car like a Porsche because people will always say it's a symbol of status. So, people may feel these journals have such a function and that they must continue to exist and universities may continue to pay for them.

So, in your opinion, the high-profile journals are the arbiters of higher standards?

I wouldn't say the high-profile journals are the arbiters of high standards. I think that they have been conferred that status by the community, and it is really true that publishing in a high-profile journal is the pinnacle of a career for many people. But what I'm saying is that with the more specialized journals, you are less inclined to do the tough experiments. Whereas you are inclined to do the tough experiments to get into a high-profile journal - it's worth your while. But if three high-profile journals turn you down, you say, "Well, maybe what I was trying to publish isn't as interesting as I thought it was, maybe I should just get it out wherever I can…"

But you're saying that if the open access journals make more headway, we'll see bad quality research and more of it…

Yes, I think that's something that people already see in some of the open access journals. You see, I think the winning ticket in all of this will be if somebody could launch a high-profile open access journal.

Surely, it would be in your interest to do just that. You have to find a solution - you've said already that you don't have one - and it must be your main interest that all we get to see is good research, and not bad research.

There will always be research of all kinds. And listen, the stuff that is published in the open access journals, I don't mean to say that all of it is bad. I'm just saying that the review process is less intensive than it is with us. So, if a high-profile journal says, "For your story to be correct we think you need to find that the mechanism you propose takes place in vivo, and for that you need to generate a knockout mouse [Eds: a genetically modified mouse that's had an existing gene "knocked out" and replaced or disrupted with artificial DNA] that doesn't have this enzyme… only in the white fat…" you will say, "Well, if that's what I need to get into the journal, I'm going to try for the experiment." But when the journal is of middle tier, you don't have the time, the inclination, or the money to do the key experiments.

Juan Carlos López is the chief editor of "Nature Medicine" in New York. He is the author of two scientific books and, before joining "Nature Medicine," he was the editor of "Nature Reviews Neuroscience" in London.

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