Sunday, October 04, 2009

Interview with BioMed Central Publisher Matthew Cockerill

Matthew Cockerill

The growing success of Open Access (OA) publishing has raised a number of issues. Perhaps one of the more contentious issues is how OA publishers ought to market their journals.

Under a subscription model, publishers sell subscriptions to libraries; with OA journals, by contrast, publishers sell a publishing service to researchers. This change has implications for the relationship between publishers and researchers, which surely becomes more complicated. And it is not entirely clear that everyone has fully thought through the implications.

To get ahead of the competition, for instance, some OA publishers are launching hundreds of new journals in a relatively short space of time. And the number of OA publishers continues to grow. As a result, it is estimated that two new titles are added to the Directory of Open Access Journals (DOAJ) each day.

Clearly these programmes require that publishers recruit editorial boards, reviewers, and author submissions quickly, and in large numbers. This has seen OA publishers engaging in large-scale bulk emailing programmes, with researchers often receiving multiple invitations.

The practice has angered some of the recipients. In March last year, for instance, one researcher — Gunther Eysenbach — became sufficiently angry about the flood of invitations he was receiving that he began posting them on his blog (e.g. here and here) in an attempt to name and shame the publishers concerned. At one point he also threatened to sue one publisher for "spamming" him, arguing that its activities were both unethical and illegal.

And as the publisher of his own journal (The Journal of Medical Internet Research), Eysenbach also played a leading part in the founding of the Open Access Scholarly Publishers Association (OASPA).

When OASPA was launched Eysenbach commented on his blog: "OASPA has some important missions. One is to set standards and keeping the standard of OA publishing high (e.g. by creating and enforcing a code of conduct, which includes for example standards against spamming)."

Other co-founders of OASPA (which recently held its first conference) include OA publishers Public Library of Science, Hindawi and BioMed Central (BMC).

Since BMC is a founder member of OASPA I was surprised when, on 16th July, I received an email from one of its journals — Theoretical Biology and Medical Modelling — inviting me (a journalist) to submit a paper.

When I contacted BMC's publisher — Matthew Cockerill — he said that I had received the message because, in 2002, I had signed up to receive updates from BMC. During the registration process, he added, I had expressed an interest in biotechnology.

I was not myself conscious of ever having opted in to receive invitations to submit papers, although I had signed up for the BMC Update, and I had signed on to its journalist list. I was also intrigued that — out of the blue and seven years after I had first registered my name on the BMC site — I should suddenly receive this invitation.

So I suggested to Cockerill that we do a formal Q&A interview. He agreed, and we began to swap questions and answers by email. With the summer holiday period intervening this proved a somewhat protracted process, but I am now able to publish the interview.

While Cockerill was away on his summer break I received two more email invitations from BMC. On 17th August I received an invitation to submit a paper to Microbial Cell Factories, and on 4th September I received one inviting me to submit a paper to Biotechnology for Biofuels. These messages were not sent to my current email address, but to one I rarely use now, an address Cockerill subsequently told me that I had used in 2005 when registering with another publisher altogether — The Scientist.

"At that time," explained Cockerill, "BioMed Central and The Scientist were part of the same group of companies and shared website systems, and a registration was valid across the entire BioMed Central and The Scientist network."

There is no suggestion that BMC is doing anything improper, or unethical. But one does wonder whether the email invitations being sent out by OA publishers are not in danger of proving counter-productive. After all, researchers have shown themselves to be somewhat sensitive to email solicitations from publishers (e.g. here).

What also seems evident is that the bulk emailing activities of OA publishers inevitably lead to a number of other questions: questions (as I said) about the relationship between publisher and author in an OA environment, but also questions about the relationship between editorial decisions and commercial decisions, and indeed questions about the relevance of the traditional journal format on the Web, and the role of commercial publishers in this brave new world.

I explored some of these wider issues in the interview with Cockerill. In doing so I was struck by one thing in particular that he said: "OA is not a religion. It's not just a 'movement' any more, either. It is a working, legitimate and sustainable business model for publishing."

Would everyone would agree with that definition of OA I wonder?


If you wish to read the interview with Matthew Cockerill please click on the link below. The PDF file that will download includes both the interview and this introduction.

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To read the interview (as a PDF file) click here.

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