2023 in Open Access at the British Pharmacological Society

Next year, the British Journal of Clinical Pharmacology (BJCP) will celebrate 50 years of publication. When the Society’s Clinical Section  was formed in 1970, one of its first decisions was to develop a new journal. This decision recognised that a journal, when it is owned and controlled by researchers, is an essential vehicle for bringing together and progressing the needs of a scientific community. A journal provides, as the Clinical Section noted back in 1971, a “focus for their identity”.  

The BJCP, along with the British Journal of Pharmacology (BJP) and Pharmacology Research & Perspectives (PR&P), continues to serve this purpose for pharmacologists across the globe. The Society’s journals have advanced pharmacology not only by giving an international platform for important findings, but by defining what rigorous, reproducible research looks like. Our expert, volunteer Editors develop guidelines, commission commentaries, and curate themed issues, in partnership with the broader activities of the Society, in addition to the mammoth task of handling hundreds of submissions a month through peer review. Through this work of their Editorial Boards, the BJP, the BJCP and PR&P have influenced all aspects of pharmacology and therapeutics, from drug discovery through to patient care. 

Of course, for our authors, the Society’s journals are one of many possible homes for their research. Developing author guidelines that are both rigorous and realistic is a difficult balancing act. We recognise that sometimes authors will be deterred and choose to send their papers elsewhere. Our Editorial Boards are committed to raising standards without being unnecessarily exclusive. Maintaining this balance requires continual monitoring and adjustment. To this end, the BJP is currently working through a major review of all of its author guidelines to ensure they are easy to comply with. Feedback from members, authors, peer reviewers and editors is useful to this goal. 

Another aspect where the Society’s journals continue to remain an option for as many authors as possible is with their publication options. The BJP and the BJCP have been primarily subscription journals since their launch, with no submission, colour or page charges. However, authors can choose to make their article Open Access (OA) in the BJP or the BJCP. Meanwhile, PR&P, now in its 10th year, is a fully OA journal, with a discount on article publication charges (APCs) for BPS or ASPET members or authors submitting as part of the ongoing ‘Pharmacology Education and Innovation’ article series

As recognised by BPS Council, OA holds great promise to support the Society’s aims for advancing pharmacology. As more articles in our journals are made freely available from first publication, their potential impact is greater. More articles from the Society’s journals are being read than ever before. The rigorous, reproducible pharmacological research championed in the BJP, the BJCP and PR&P is increasingly accessible to international audiences outside of academia and industry, including policymakers, clinicians, educators, patients, and the wider public. On our current trajectory, it’s likely we will have no paywalls at all on the BJP or the BJCP within the next five years. Tempered only by the needs of authors, we are pursuing this transition to OA in partnership with our publisher, Wiley. Moving towards a fully OA future, however, presents some challenges. 

These APCs are not an ideal solution for funding the cost of publishing, as they may exclude authors without the funds to pay. We have some measures to reduce this problem. Authors from over 120 countries are automatically eligible for discounted or waived charges in PR&P (Institutions in those same countries also receive reduced or free subscription access to the BJP and the BJCP.).But a better solution would be to shift the burden away from individual authors entirely. This sort of solution requires change at the level of research funders and institutions, and there are causes for optimism. 

An increasing number of authors can publish the final version of their article fully Open Access (OA) at no cost to themselves. Due to the ‘transformational agreements’ between our publisher and many institutions worldwide, OA publication in the BJP or the BJCP is covered for authors at those institutions. This includes many researchers in countries like the UK, Spain, Germany, Turkey and Australia, to pick a few examples. And as more of these agreements have been signed over the last few years, this option has been taken by more of our authors. Of the almost 50% of authors who publish OA in the BJP and the BJCP, most now come through transformational agreements. This year, about 200 articles in our journals this year were made OA this way; five years ago, it was about 20. But what is being transformed? 

For the growing number of institutions who have negotiated transformational agreements, a portion of the money they spend on accessing the Society’s journals is now linked to the articles published by members of that institution. So, for instance, every time an author at a UK university publishes in the BJCP, an amount of money from their university’s overall subscription to Wiley is paid to the BJCP to cover the publishing cost, and the article is made OA.  The idea is that these agreements will ‘transform’ all subscription journals into fully OA ones. This is certainly happening, albeit slowly. But it may be that progress will slow as our publisher runs out of customers interested in these agreements. Progress may even go backwards, if customers trying to advance OA transition lose patience with transformational agreements as a means to achieve that goal. 

The Society’s journals have always had the main goal of serving their community. For the first twenty years of the BJP, the Society received no financial return from it at all. But since the late 1960s, publishing has also become a commercial endeavour for the Society, as it has for many learned societies and associations, with the subscription model returning a consistent, predictable income to support the Society’s work. The ongoing transformation of the subscription model is financially turbulent. As you can see from the example above, a growing proportion of funding to journals is now dependent on how many articles are published and from which institutions. As this changes over time, so will our journals’ income. This is before we even consider the longevity of these transformational agreements or changes in which institutions participate in them. From a business perspective, riskier and less predictable income is substantially different from steady income.  

Furthermore, linking journals income to the number of articles published places a moving cap on our income, even as our costs are not so responsive. Only about 1/3 of our journal costs go directly up or down depending on how many articles we publish. The remainder (e.g. marketing, support for editorial board meetings, staff costs for journal management, honoraria for editors) are incurred regardless of whether 30 or 300 articles were accepted for publication that year. It’s worth noting that these fixed costs mostly relate to the community-building work mentioned above. And this is before we come to the surplus that the Society uses to support meetings, bursaries, training, policy work, and other activities. No commercial operation is entitled to revenue, but inevitably the community-building work of the BJP, the BJCP and PR&P, and the Society beyond that, will need to change to fit within their new circumstances. 

When the Society’s Clinical Section first considered a new journal in 1971, it recognised that launching a journal through the Society meant that “commercial considerations are properly balanced”. It saw that the alternative was the inevitable appearance of a clinical pharmacology journal owned by a for-profit publisher. Many new pharmacology journals have, of course, appeared since then, with commercial publishers increasingly recognising the business potential of OA.

Authors have a lot of choice when it comes to publishing, but for BPS members, the difference is that the BJP, the BJCP and PR&P are your journals. Rather than being driven solely by commercial considerations, the Society’s journals exist to serve their community, to serve you. To do this, they need your support, whether that is in acting as a reviewer or editor, submitting your research, sharing relevant articles or calls for papers with colleagues, or giving feedback on our policies and guidelines. In doing so, we can continue that service for the next generation of pharmacologists.


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Published: 13 Dec 2023
By Charles Whalley

About the author

Charles Whalley

Charles is Head of Journals Publishing at the British Pharmacological Society. He is responsible for the Society's three academic journals: the British Journal of Pharmacology, the British Journal of Clinical Pharmacology, and Pharmacology Research & Perspectives.

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