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Three Biomedical Funders to Launch Open Access Journal

Three heavyweight, nongovernmental funders of science announced today that they are launching a free online biology journal aimed at publishing the very best papers within a few weeks of submission. But few confirmed details are available about the journal, which doesn't yet have a name, editor, publisher, or business model.

Two biomedical research charities, the Wellcome Trust in the United Kingdom and the Howard Hughes Medical Institute (HHMI) in the United States, have joined together with the Max Planck Society in Germany to launch the journal. At a briefing today in London, Wellcome Trust Director Mark Walport explained that after holding a workshop with scientists last year, the organizations decided there was "a niche" for a new kind of journal. It will "attract the absolute top tier of scientific publications" and will be "not just for the community of people that we fund, it is for scientists at large," he said.

One problem the online-only journal hopes to avoid is the slow review process at many existing journals. The new journal hopes to review papers within 3 to 4 weeks and limit requests for more experiments, said HHMI president Robert Tjian. "We're not going to go through endless iterations of nitpicking," said Walport.

Another difference is that unlike top journals such as Science, Nature, and Cell, the new journal won't employ professional editors to filter submissions. Instead it will be run by by an editor-in-chief and a board of about 12 editors who will all be working scientists. (Most mid-tier journals published by professional societies follow this model.) The journal will also publish, albeit anonymously, the comments made by each paper's reviewer, which few journals now do.

The journal will be open access, meaning that articles will be freely available online the moment they are published. But while most open access journals cover costs by charging authors up to $3000 per paper, the new journal will not charge so-called author fees "for a number of years," Walport said. He confirmed rumors of another unusual feature: the journal is considering whether to pay reviewers. One person familiar with the discussions told Science reviewers might get paid increasingly smaller amounts, the longer they took.

The three funding organizations are setting up an independent joint venture to run the journal and will choose a publisher. Its reach in life sciences and biomedicine will be "pretty broad" and could include clinical trials, Walport said. It is expected to publish more papers than Nature's 800 a year but the level will be set by "quality," Walport said. The first issue is to be published in summer 2012.

Walport declined to specify how much money the three organizations are putting into the journal. Tjian, however, pointed out that the cost of publishing their investigators' papers is "a rounding error" compared with the $800 million or so a year that they each put into research. "We're more interested in the quality and how to make the process efficient and rapid," he said.

Another model for open access publishing, the Public Library of Science (PLoS), has been unable to cover the costs of its elite journals with author fees. Instead PLoS relies on PLoS ONE, a high-volume online journal with an arguably lighter standard of peer review, to operate profitably. Walport acknowledged that PLoS turned to publishing a "stable" of journals."In the long term, we will be looking to develop a sustainable model," he said.

He also emphasized that the Wellcome Trust, HHMI, and Planck will not require their investigators to publish in the new journal. "There will be no pressure either overt or covert on the scientists that we fund to choose this journal," Walport says.

Paying reviewers has been discussed in the past but few journals now do it. One publisher who did not want to be named pointed out that the costs could add up: If there were three reviews per paper and reviewers were paid $500 per review, then a journal like Nature, which reviewed 10,000 papers last year, would end up paying some $15 million annually for the review process.

A leader of open access, University of California, Berkeley, biologist Michael Eisen, a PLoS co-founder and board member, said launching another journal edited by "elite" scientists seems "mildly reactionary" and that paying reviewers "might not scale" to other journals. But there are "lot of things fantastic about this," he says. "The instinct here is that peer review needs to be shaken up."

Eisen, who is an HHMI investigator, also isn't worried that the journal will be seen as a mouthpiece for its funding organizations. "They know that it would condemn the journal to death if it were viewed as obligatory or if their investigators had a special in," says Eisen.

A sometime critic of open access journals, Martin Frank, executive director of the American Physiological Society, said it's difficult to assess the new journal without more details. "All you can say is, the scientific community welcomes a new journal into the fold and we wish them well," he says.