Three research foundations say they are answering scientist demand for an open access rival to Cell, Nature and Science


The Wellcome Trust, the Max Planck Society and the Howard Hughes Medical Institute are set to launch an open access research journal that will attempt to compete directly for submissions with Cell, Nature and Science. They will publish the first issue of the as-yet unnamed online only publication for biomedical and life sciences research in summer 2012. Authors will not be charged fees and anonymous reviewer comments will be published. ’We will offer a fast service and transparent peer review that will ensure that researchers want to submit,’ says Robert Kiley, head of digital services at the Wellcome Library. 

It is unusual for research funders to get involved in journal publishing. The group says that the move is an attempt to resolve scientist frustration with the publishing models used by the top journals. ’Cell, Nature and Science are very great journals and publish many of the very best papers,’ comments eminent protein scientist Alan Fersht. ’But even they publish some lemons and reject superb work unreviewed. As the editors are not necessarily experts, they rely heavily on the opinions of referees, can put authors through unnecessary rounds of revisions and even reject unfairly after revision.’ The foundations decided to take direct action in 2010 after such concerns surfaced at a workshop at the Janelia Farm Research Campus in Loudoun County, Virginia. ’A clear message came out of Janelia that an awful lot of reviewers asked for additional experiments,’ Kiley explains. The journal editor must therefore understand whether extra experiments are necessary.

Wellcome building

The home of the Wellcome Trust in London, UK

© Wellcome Trust

’The editor-in-chief for this journal will be a practising scientist,’ Kiley says. ’They will, for a number of papers, effectively write a commentary, saying "I’m publishing this paper - it may not be finished, but this is significant research". We want the editor-in-chief to say, "I think this is good to go", or "It’s not good enough - it’s rejected".’ The editor-in-chief will be supported by ’a dozen or so’ other practising researchers covering the whole range of biosciences. The scientific editors, publisher and the managing executive editor will serve as a bridge between them, although they have not yet been chosen. In addition, the group is likely to partner with an existing academic publisher to establish systems for manuscript tracking and web publishing.

Open access all areas?
Mark Patterson, director of publishing at the Public Library of Science, says he hopes the new ’venue for outstanding research’ will raise the profile of open access publishing. His organisation’s open access title Plos One reportedly became the world’s largest journal in 2010. But Patterson says the move will ’help to increase the momentum towards comprehensive’ open access. Fersht, meanwhile, notes that PNAS, on which he is an associate editor, already uses only active expert scientists for editing and reviewing papers. He says he welcomed another journal sharing that philosophy. 

However, editors who are not active researchers have their advantages, says James Milne, editorial director at the Royal Society of Chemistry. ’They’re reading the literature day in, day out, they’re seeing the broad picture and they’re also distanced from the politics that goes on in active research groups.’ he says. When the new journal starts charging author fees, sustaining a high-level journal with standard open access author payments alone will be hard, Milne adds. ’For prestige areas, there’s going to be roughly a 95 per cent rejection rate,’ he says. ’For every 20 submissions that you have to pay to manage the review process for, only one will carry an author payment fee. They will have to bring in a submission fee for a journal like this, or continue to subsidise the publication.’ 

For renowned MIT biotechnologist Robert Langer, the publication’s quality will ultimately determine its success. ’If it’s a super-high impact journal, it will be great for researchers,’ he says. ’If not, it will just be another journal.’ Fersht agrees, adding that the current absence of author charges would be a big draw. ’If the journal establishes itself with a genuinely active editorial board of committed top rate scientists, then I would find it very attractive to submit papers to it and read the published ones,’ he said. 

Andy Extance