An independent publishing company has launched a scheme to provide universities with free access to its peer-reviewed journals by charging them to allow their academics to submit papers, writes Caroline Davis.
A British university and two American institutions have already committed themselves to joining BioMed Central's scheme that will allow their academics to submit unlimited numbers of papers to its 60 free online journals.
BioMed Central was set up in London a year ago by a private investor who believed subscription charges were crippling the communication of science and wanted to ensure scientists globally had free access to research. Papers were initially published free, but on January 1 this year the scheme began charging authors a $500 (£350) publication fee per paper.
Institutional membership costs range from $1,500 (£1,000) a year for institutions with fewer than 500 full-time staff and postgraduate students to $7,500 (£5,200) for institutions with more than 5,000 such staff and students.
The organisers say that a waiver would be available to scientists, particularly in developing countries, who cannot afford the publication fee.
Jan Velterop, BioMed Central's publisher, said: "The current service is not doing a service to scientists and something needs to change."
He said that the fees the company charged were simply to cover publishing costs, although BioMed Central hoped to make a small profit in the future.
Since publishing is generally more in the interests of the author than the reader, charging to publish rather than to read papers made more sense economically, Mr Velterop said.
Fred Friend, director of scholarly communication at University College London, said: "This is a good investment for universities, because if more articles are published in journals that are free to access, universities will eventually save on the high cost of purchasing journals."
But some academics in an online debate disagreed about the business model. One said that many universities would not be able to afford a transition period in which they would still pay subscription fees to conventional journals while also being charged to submit papers.
Another researcher, working in the National Health Service, said that research budget shortages would ensure that there would be no money to pay a publication fee.
* Oxford University Press is launching a subscription website, Oxford Reference Online, that will contain 100 core language and subject reference dictionaries works. It is aimed at universities, libraries and schools and will cost up to £2,500 a year for a large university. The OUP said authors of the works would receive a royalty cut from the subscription revenues.