President's Message

ASBMB journals
are going open access

Gerald Hart
May 13, 2020

The American Society for Biochemistry and Molecular Biology on Monday announced that it would make its three peer-reviewed journals fully open access beginning in January 2021. As president, I convened a task force responsible for exploring how the society could achieve this longstanding goal, and I oversaw the task force's work. Here, I'd like to explain the reasons for this move, why we decided to partner with a commercial publisher, and what this all means for the society.

I’ve written before about the intensifying pressure on scholarly publishers to make their journals fully open access. Researchers, funding agencies, patients and other members of the public believe that taxpayer-funded research should be accessible to all. The ASBMB shares this belief, which is why our journals — Journal of Biological Chemistry, Journal of Lipid Research and Molecular & Cellular Proteomics — have for years made accepted manuscripts freely available and have encouraged authors to post their manuscripts in public repositories. Still, those measures aside, the writing is on the wall: In the future, anything short of full open access isn’t going to cut it.

Although both subscription and open-access models are funded by research grants, moving from a subscription model, in which institutional libraries pay for journal access (mostly from indirect costs, F&A), to an open-access model, in which authors pay the full cost of publishing (currently mostly from direct costs) and making their papers public, is complicated, to say the least.

To begin with, it incentivizes high-volume publishing, rather than high-quality publishing. You’ve probably noticed that some open-access publishers have pretty low standards: The more papers they publish, the more money they make. For the ASBMB, based upon the volume of papers it currently publishes in its three journals, subscriptions provide more income than author fees will.

The society is willing to take that financial hit to do what’s right for the community. It is not willing, however, to lower its standards in order to increase volume. Let me be very clear about this: ASBMB journals are committed to publishing papers that our reviewers, all of whom are active scientists, deem important, relevant, rigorous and reproducible.

On top of loss of subscription revenue, open-access publishing requires different workflows, platforms and technologies. As authors, we don’t often think about these operational requirements for publishing, but it’s important to get them right. While the task force explored the possibility of ASBMB cobbling together new and existing systems on its own, it determined that even if the society could line everything up for a January launch, it would immediately lag behind the competition. Frankly, we did the math, and ASBMB simply does not have the finances to go open access on its own. If we want to do this quickly and keep pace thereafter, the task force determined, we need help.

The task force then produced a request for proposals, making it clear that the society needed a publishing partner with experience transitioning subscription journals to open access and with the ability to do it by January. The task force evaluated seven proposals and shortlisted four potential partners to present to the ASBMB Council in February. While each proposal had its own strengths, Elsevier’s was the strongest. The task force recommended that the society partner with Elsevier, and Council voted unanimously in April to do so.

Now, it’s fair to say that Elsevier has a number of critics in our community, in some cases because of historical practices and in some cases because of more recent ones. I’m not here to defend Elsevier; I am here to explain to you why it was our best choice.

For starters, Elsevier has extensive experience working with societies. Many of you likely publish in the Biophysical Journal, which is owned by the Biophysical Society but published in partnership with Cell Press, an imprint of Elsevier. In just the past year, Elsevier has worked to make at least 100 journals open access, almost half of them with societies. In addition, Elsevier has submission, production, online publishing, analytics and marketing systems that we can immediately adopt and then tailor as needed.

ASBMB journals, as you likely know, have significant archives that must be migrated to any new system. JBC alone has been publishing for more than a century. It’s important to us that we continue to be good stewards of that archive of knowledge, and Elsevier has committed to preserving it.

A key point in our negotiations was pricing, and the good news is that it will be cheaper for everyone, but ASBMB members especially, to publish open-access papers in our journals. The standard article processing charge will be $2,500, and ASBMB members will pay only $2,000. This is a very good price in the current marketplace and is much cheaper than most open-access journals.

Finally, given the subscription revenue we’ll be losing, Elsevier promised us a short-term income guarantee that will hold us over while the journals, after becoming open access, gradually reach new readers and authors.

What does all this mean for the ASBMB?

The most important thing I want to emphasize is that the ASBMB retains ownership and complete editorial control of its journals. We will continue to select our editors-in-chief, associate editors and editorial board members. We will continue to manage the peer-review process. We will make editorial decisions based upon merit, not flashiness or volume. We will always be scientists working to support other scientists. There will be no nonscientist gatekeepers.

I have written before about why we should review for and publish in society-owned journals, and my position remains unchanged. JBC, JLR and MCP are still society-owned journals, and they need your contributions now more than ever.

Below are some key points to remember:

  • All ASBMB journals will be gold open access beginning in January.
  • The ASBMB will continue to own 100% of its three journals.
  • All editorial decisions will remain with the society.
  • All peer review will continue to be done by working scientists — YOU (no nonscientist gatekeepers).
  • All appointments of editors-in-chief, associate editors and editorial board members will continue to be the society’s to make.
  • There will be a new and improved manuscript tracking and submission system.
  • There will be improvements to the author experience.
  • Fast turnaround will remain a top priority.
  • There will be improvements in operations.
  • All ASBMB journals will be in full compliance with Plan S and other open-access initiatives, resulting in greater global reach and visibility. 
  • There will be improved search functionality within the board to find the best reviewers for manuscripts. 

Making our journals fully open access is the right thing to do to advance science, but — as explained above — it will result in a substantial loss of revenue (subscription income). The society will continue its many programs that support our members, including education, public affairs, outreach and many other activities that support our field. We have determined that, with careful stewardship of the ASBMB’s resources, we will be able to keep the society in great shape in perpetuity. Unfortunately, as I have stated in earlier columns, many small society journals and societies themselves won’t likely survive the coming mandates for open access due to loss of revenue. We are indeed fortunate that both the current and past ASBMB managers have been great stewards of our financial resources. In short, open access is not only great for science, but also the ASBMB will survive this transition in great shape!

The decision to go open access was not made lightly and involved the hard work of many people who considered all of the options. As president, I would like to thank the many people who put in long hours to develop our plans for this transition.

You may still have questions about this decision and its impact. We are doing our best to provide information and be as transparent as possible. You can find a list of frequently asked questions here, and I also invite you to contact me or any of the journal editors with your thoughts, questions and concerns.

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Gerald Hart

Gerald Hart is a professor and Georgia Research Alliance eminent scholar at the University of Georgia. He is a former president of the ASBMB.

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