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Digitizing the Coin of the Realm

Electronic publication has transformed the culture of scientific communication

Francis L. Macrina

Pondering the Power of Pixels

For more than 20 years, we have witnessed the profound effects of digital technology on scholarly publication. Changes in logistics and culture have been diverse and numerous. But I would argue that today, open access is the central issue in the marriage of publication to the pixel. It may be growing too fast for some and not fast enough for others, but it is growing nonetheless. I believe it is here to stay. It takes multiple forms, from journals that exclusively practice free-to-user availability, to individual investigators who maintain online libraries of their own published work. Will one model dominate over time? Are there more models to come? If the past 20 years are any predictor, the interplay of imagination, market forces and evolving digital technology will continue to change the publication landscape.

In the meantime, the scholarly community has a role to play in the development of the OA movement. That community includes authors, publishers, scientific societies, librarians and computer scientists. OA journal publishing should be subjected to ongoing evaluation to measure its impact, to address problems and to improve the platform for all its users. There should be transparent assessment of performance metrics such as article processing times, citations, peer-review quality and the costs to those involved.

Once such evaluations have been performed, they may help answer a growing host of questions: Is a goal of 100 percent open access reasonable or desirable? Should researchers embrace some forms of OA publication and not others? What about server space, backup and security issues specific to online-only journals? As we move toward a more OA culture, what role do—and should—printed journals have? Should there be more proactive education about OA publication? Do we need to be more forward-thinking about who should pay for publication costs? Many research funding agencies do pay grantees’ publication fees, but with OA publishing, the budget may have to increase. Should our institutions step up to the plate with their checkbooks? To gain maximum effect, the analyses that address these questions should be made by parties devoid of conflict of interest, and—in the spirit of open access—the results should be placed in the public domain.


I thank Andrekia Branch for her help in manuscript preparation and Glen Kellogg for helpful comments.


  • Bethesda Statement on Open Access Publishing. 2003. Accessed July 9, 2011.
  • Day, Robert A., and Barbara Gastel. 2006. How to Write and Publish a Scientific Paper, sixth edition. Westport, CT: Greewood Press.
  • Laakso, Mikael, et al. 2011. The development of open access journal publishing from 1993 to 2009. PLoS ONE 6: e20961.
  • Macrina, Francis L. 2011. Teaching authorship and publication practices in the biomedical and life sciences. Science and Engineering Ethics 17:341–354.
  • Mandavilli, Apoorva. 2011. Trial by Twitter. Nature 469:286–287.
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