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Nucleic Acids Research and Open Access

By Richard Roberts


In 2004, when the internet was pervading every aspect of science, the Executive Editors of Nucleic Acids Research (NAR) made the momentous decision to convert the journal from a traditional subscription based journal to one in which the content was freely available to everyone, with the costs of publication paid by the authors. There was great trepidation, by the editors and Oxford University Press, that authors would refuse to do this and instead would choose to publish elsewhere. Indeed there were certainly some authors who withdrew their submissions when informed of the new policy, but surprisingly many fewer than had been feared. An even greater fear was that the libraries who subscribed to the journal would immediately unsubscribe, thereby reducing the income that had traditionally supported the journal.  Had that happened en masse, Nucleic Acids Research would probably not have survived those first tumultuous years. However, during that period open access publication was receiving a great deal of support within the scientific community and movements such as the Public Library of Science, arguing in favor of this approach to scientific publishing were very persuasive for many scientists. Nucleic Acids Research, being the first well-established, subscription-based journal to choose this path meant that we provided a forum whereby authors could show their support for the movement. Furthermore, libraries help immensely by not immediately cancelling their subscriptions.

As chief US Editor of Nucleic Acids Research at the time I felt quite strongly that this move to open access would be a very positive move for the journal and that rather than deterring authors it would be viewed in a very positive light.  After all, one of the reasons for publishing is so that new scientific advances can be disseminated as widely as possible, thereby enhancing the reputation of the authors and of the journal. Despite the fact that all major universities would be subscribers to the journal, there were many scientists — in companies, in the developing world and many of the small teaching colleges — who would not have subscriptions and so would lack any sort of access to the papers appearing in our journal prior to our move to open access. Furthermore, Nucleic Acids Research had always been a leader in innovation — we were one of the first journals to demand that authors of sequence papers must deposit those sequences in GenBank — and so this could provide yet another example of our forward-looking policies. I am happy to report that not only did NAR survive those first few years, but both the quantity and the quality of submissions have steadily risen ever since.

Already, open access is widely seen to be the model of choice for scientific publication and it seems implausible that ten years from now our scientific children would choose to publish in any other way.  They will probably look back and wonder how it was even possible that subscription-based publication could have been viewed as an appropriate way to disseminate scientific findings once the internet became a reality. Those journals that fail to embrace open access may discover that they have become obsolete. Nature and Science, two journals that could have greatly speeded the acceptance of open access publication had they been truly interested in the good of science, instead of being profit-driven, may be looked upon as dinosaurs of a previous age. While Nucleic Acids Research almost immediately made all of their back content freely available to everyone, one of the great challenges going forward will be to convince all journals that they should behave likewise. Only then will we truly have the “GenBank” of the scientific literature that was envisioned at the opening of the 21st century.

Rich Roberts is a Nobel Prize winning biochemist and molecular biologist, and is currently Chief Scientific Officer and New England BioLabs Inc. Rich was Chief US Editor at NAR between 1987 and 2009, and was instrumental in NAR’s transition to open access in 2004.

Nucleic Acids Research (NAR) publishes the results of leading edge research into physical, chemical, biochemical and biological aspects of nucleic acids and proteins involved in nucleic acid metabolism and/or interactions.

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