CMAJ “No longer free for all”

I’ve been thinking about the Canadian Medical Association Journal (CMAJ)‘s decision to convert from being 100% free to read online to only partially so, come January.

Access Change

The Canadian Medical Association Journal (CMAJ) has been entirely free to read, online, since it first went digital in the mid-1990’s.

This is about to change.

Letters from the publisher and editor inform us that, beginning in January,

“Editorials, news, clinical images, abstracts and previously published articles will also remain accessible to all readers. Access to reviews, analysis, practice, commentaries, humanities and supplements will be restricted [to CMA members and journal subscribers]…although these items will become free of charge 12 months after publication.”

Funder OA Requirement Implications

Research – of key concern to any researcher holding funding from CIHR or the many other research funders who require OA to publications before a year’s embargo is up – will remain free to access. However, authors should be advised that publishing in the “Reviews” or “Analysis” sections will not meet the CIHR OA requirement - and there is no pay-for-OA option to remediate that.

Bucking the Trend?

The reason given for the CMAJ’s access change is that:

We must now adapt our business model to respond to current economic conditions and can no longer provide free access to all of our content.

I think this is interesting, given all the journals that have recently been deciding they cannot afford NOT at least offer an OA option. Is there some sort of OA “sweet spot” that is most profitable in 2009/2010? Or is CMAJ just panicking and hoping to get a bit more cash in a recession here?

I’m also curious as to why CMAJ decided to restrict access to readers, rather than charging publication fees to authors. Author-side fees seem to be the current dominant method for publishers attempting to move from subscription to free-to-read models in biomedicine. (Will this be a later phase for CMAJ, post re-institution of subscriptions, effectively making an early adopter of OA end up as also a late adopter of OA?) My guess is that CMAJ authors are generally better funded than the readers. If anyone reading this has insight in to why CMAJ decided to charge readers rather than authors, I’d love to hear it!

Institutions or individuals requiring immediate access to the entire online journal will need to purchase subscriptions unless they are CMA members. (Haven’t heard much buzz on the library wire yet as far as how this $690/yr is going to affect already-shrinking serials budgets in libraries…maybe there’s nothing to say?)

The journal is also planning to publish more frequently online, and less frequently in print, to speed up publication timetables and save on postage. Wish they could scrap the print all together, but I’m not intimately familiar with the reading habits of practicing Canadian MDs, so maybe there is a reason they haven’t done the obvious yet?

CMAJ will continue to participate in the HINARI and AGORA initiatives to bring free or low-cost access to low-income international readership. They’re also giving “media” free access, and while I am really glad CMAJ’s not planning to limit journalists to lousy “press-release journalism,” I’d be interested to know who qualifies as “accredited” media in 2010.

Effect on Journal Impact?

CMAJ is one of the only Canadian biomedical/health journals to be a serious competitor in the Impact Factor rankings (ISI Journal Citation Reports). Since 1997, it’s IF has grown from 1.6 to 7.5, placing CMAJ within the top 10 general medical journals. This stellar climb in a non-U.S.American journal has frequently (but controversially) been associated with it’s wide availability – particularly since other OA journals – such as PLoS Medicine – have made similar sharp climbs. While research articles (upon which the IF formula is based) will remain free to read, it will be interesting to see whether the journal maintains its high IF ranking or slips in the years following this change. My guess is that it would take a long time to slip, if at all, because it is now fairly widely known internationally, compared with a decade ago.

Open vs Free

A couple years ago, back in July 2007, the editors of CMAJ published a commentary congratulating the editors of Open Medicine (OM) on establishing a new journal. While this congratulatory note was interesting in light of the historic editorial schism at CMAJ that gave birth to OM, the letter itself looked nice and innocuous enough. In said letter, CMAJ wrote:

Like CMAJ, Open Medicine is an open-access journal, available free to all who wish to read it and free for all who wish to contribute to it. As open access remains disappointingly rare among general medical journals (Table 1), this is both commendable and of great significance. The birth of Open Medicine thus provides us with a valuable opportunity to remind our readers why open access to the medical literature is important and necessary.

OM’s editors responded a few days later with their own letter, which struck some as less than gracious. In it, they wrote:

Although the endorsement by CMAJ’s editors of open access medical publishing is welcome, we would like to take this opportunity to clarify several points raised in their commentary.1 First, there is an important distinction between open versus free-access publication. Open Medicine has not only adopted the principle of free access, that is, making content fully available online, but endorses the definition of open access publication drafted by the Bethesda Meeting on Open Access Publishing.2 This definition stipulates that the copyright holder grants to all users a free, irrevocable, worldwide, perpetual right of access to, and a license to copy, use, distribute, transmit and display the work publicly and to make and distribute works derived from the original work, in any digital medium for any responsible purpose, subject to proper attribution of authorship. Given that CMAJ holds copyright and charges reprint and permission fees, it is not in fact an open access journal.

It’s significant to note that these letters were written before the Suber-Harnad agreement on the terms gratis OA and libre OA to indicate free-to-read/access vs free-to-read/access/reuse/redistribute. There was more talk about what was and wasn’t “real” OA just a couple years ago. Even taking into consideration the context of the day, though, the OM response could be read as a bit snitty.

However, in light of this recent “Access change” by CMAJ, the OM letter suddenly seems more relevant, almost prescient. Another difference between gratis, free-as-in-no-money OA and libre, free-as-in-freedom OA emerges when journals highlight their ability to take their toys and go home. CMAJ is not saying they’re moving anything that is currently freely available back behind subscription barriers, and they are currently planning to make everything free to read 12 months after publiciation, BUT…we are reminded that CMAJ’s articles are CMAJ’s articles. Whereas Open Medicine’s articles are ours.

-Greyson

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Filed under copyright, digitization, funding, Health, OA, publishing

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