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September 11, 2008

Open Access: E-journals don't always equal free access

Open-access publishing has been in the limelight as recent developments have encouraged more free publication of scholarly literature.

This is the fourth in an occasional series on the impact of the digital age on academic publishing.

Publish or perish, the familiar adage says. While journals in print once were the standard for academic publishing, e-publishing options have broadened the choices for disseminating academic work.

The trend is unmistakable. In fiscal year 1999, the first year the University Library System listed electronic journals separately in its annual report of library holdings, the University subscribed to 1,986 electronic journals. Now Pitt subscribes to nearly 20 times that many: There are 39,471 e-journals among the 48,637 serials to which Pitt’s libraries subscribe.

Electronic journals can reach a wider audience than print editions while taking up no library shelf space. They also make possible the inclusion of such extras as video or audio clips and eliminate the space limitations inherent in paper formats. Additional photos, color, data tables and hyperlinks that enable readers to open other materials can be included in an electronic document.

Some online journals have incorporated Web 2.0 features that allow users to contribute to the site’s content. PLoS One (, a publication of the Public Library of Science, for instance, allows readers to add their own notes, comments or ratings to its articles. Other electronic journals have chosen to focus on “video-articles.” For example, the Journal of Visualized Experiments (JoVE) solicits video demonstrations of techniques in biological sciences disciplines. The peer-reviewed open-access online biology journal ( has been likened to a YouTube for biological scientists.

About 60 percent of peer-reviewed journals are available electronically, the Association of Research Libraries estimated in its 2007 report, “The E-only Tipping Point for Journals.” The report also cited a University of California study that found online use of library-provided journals exceeds print use by a factor of at least 10.

No doubt, popularity with readers is among the drivers of the move toward e-journals. Cost savings — for publishers in lower production and mailing costs and for libraries in processing and storage costs — also play a role.

While the costs of editing a journal remain essentially the same whether in electronic or paper format, efficiencies in production and distribution present a cost savings, said Tim Deliyannides, head of ULS’s Department of Information Systems. For some journals, mailing costs are their largest expense — particularly if they have subscribers internationally. By going electronic, “These journals are going to save money,” he said.

However, in the current hybrid environment, many publishers are faced with the cost of publishing both print and electronic editions. The ARL report predicts that soon will change. With the exception of the scholarly societies that publish their own journals — a segment that makes up the majority of the estimated 8,000 print-only journals — the ARL report predicts that in a decade print journals likely will decline and play a role only “to address specialized needs, users or business opportunities.”

Deliyannides said the shift to electronic publications can present a problem — the needs of those without electronic access have to be considered as e-journals become the norm. Options could include continuing to provide paper journals in smaller press runs, or adopting a print-on-demand system by which subscribers could receive paper copies.

Some journals are sponsored as a kind of academic public service. For example, a new e-only, open-access International Journal of Telerehabilitation is expected to be launched next April. The biannual publication is being sponsored by Pitt’s Rehabilitation Engineering Research Center, which is funded through the National Institute of Disability Research and Rehabilitation of the U.S. Department of Education.

However, scholarly journals that are available online aren’t necessarily open access. Peer review and editorial costs aren’t eliminated by moving to an e-only format and online hosting and archiving expenses need to be recovered.

Publishers are tackling these costs through a variety of business models. Some are instituting author fees for submissions. For instance, PLoS ONE is available free to readers, but charges authors a $1,300 publication fee, although discounts and waivers are available.

Other e-journals are accessible only by paid subscription or through license fees charged to institutional users, which are becoming a growing part of library budgets. Association of Research Libraries data for 2007 showed that electronic materials (computer files and serials) made up 43.2 percent of Pitt’s library materials budget. Pitt’s $5.9 million in expenditures for electronic materials including journals placed it at No. 13 nationally among research libraries.

A policy implemented by the National Institutes of Health earlier this year represents a compromise aimed at both recognizing the value added by journal publishers as well as the responsibility to allow widespread access to publicly funded research, noted ULS director and Hillman Librarian Rush Miller.

Investigators who publish research conducted using NIH funding must submit their final peer-reviewed manuscripts to the open-access PubMed Central repository no later than 12 months after publication, allowing the journals initial publication, and later providing the public free access.

Some print journals published at Pitt (through ULS’s D-Scribe digital publishing program co-sponsored by the University of Pittsburgh Press) are making the move to e-publishing. The journal Ethnology is planning to publish its first electronic issue in April 2009. Revista Iberoamericana is planning to initiate an electronic version of its publication sometime next year. ULS recently scanned all the latter journal’s back issues, which date to 1939. Editorial staff are constructing online issues from the scanned documents, Deliyannides said. 

Both Ethnology and Revista Iberoamericana will continue to publish on a subscription basis and will offer both print and electronic versions for the time being as their editors define their subscription models, Deliyannides said.

Electronic publishing has broadened the ability to produce journals. ULS will work with editors who are interested in moving their journals to open-access formats. “We are serving the academic community,” Deliyannides said. “Part of being a leader in electronic publishing is providing service to the global research community.”

ULS’s e-journal publishing program uses Open Journal Systems (OJS) publishing software developed by the Public Knowledge Project, a partnership among the University of British Columbia, Simon Fraser University and Stanford University dedicated to improving the scholarly and public quality of research. Information on the project is available at

Deliyannides said OJS software, which allows for easy collaboration among contributors and editors, is used in more than 900 refereed academic journals worldwide. 

The software speeds the production process in part by replacing the old way of submitting paper manuscripts by mail with electronic management of the workflow. “This is all online from the start,” Deliyannides said, explaining that as a journal issue is being produced, its components are stored centrally so that collaborators can work on the entire process — manuscript submissions, multiple levels of review and editing, layout and proofing — from essentially anyplace.

“It makes it easier for people to work collaboratively worldwide,” he said. The end product is an e-journal that not only is available globally but also supports RSS feeds (to which users can subscribe for updates), among other features.

Deliyannides estimated that from a technology standpoint going electronic is quick — an e-journal could be up and running within a matter of only three-six months.

Ellen Cohn, associate dean for instructional development and an associate professor in the School of Health and Rehabilitation Sciences, has been a moving force in launching the new open-access International Journal of Telerehabilitation. An editorial board, including international representation, has been formed and members are being trained on the software. Cohn said she expects the journal will be ready to accept submissions by November for its first publication next April.

Noting that telerehabilitation is not a discipline but rather an amalgamation that can encompass psychology, speech pathology, otolaryngology, audiology, emergency medicine and more, Cohn said, “We perceived a space in the field. Right now there isn’t a journal forum on that topic.”

She views the journal launch as an opportunity to shape the field and to provide academic public service that will affect the greater good.

“It’s a fascinating way to develop this,” she said, stressing the ease in working with the software and the open access medium’s advantage of speeding the publication of scholarly literature.

Mastering the publishing technology was not an issue. Cohn said the software took her only a few hours to learn.

“It’s not that difficult to do,” she said. “Anyone could start doing a journal, really.”

—Kimberly K. Barlow

Filed under: Feature,Volume 41 Issue 2

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