Born Digital: building the ultimate open-access publisher

By Pascal Rocha da Silva, Frontiers

The digital disruption for analog film started in 1975 with the invention of the digital camera by Steven Sasson and ended with the bankruptcy of Kodak in 2012 (40 years later). The digital disruption in publishing started in the late 1990s with the first online archiving of articles, but it is still far from complete (~30 years into the transition). However, as over 30% of peer-reviewed papers are now published in some form of open-access1, the industry has technically crossed the tipping point for disruption. This is the point where more than just the innovators and early adopters begin using a product or service.

Figure 1: Projection of open access versus subscription articles: 2000-2021.

Disruptions are driven by economic models that lower costs, and process models that increase efficiency. In 2014, the revenue per subscription article was around $7,000 (calculated from $14 billion revenue for about 2 million articles2 – see article on the cost of publishing), while the average Article Processing Charge (APC) for an open-access article was estimated in our sample at $2,700. This means that, as open-access articles grow to dominate the market, the cost of publishing will eventually drop 2-3 fold, saving libraries and research departments $5 to 10 billion every year. In fact, an Outsell report estimates that a near complete transition to open access will shrink the market value of the publishing industry by 57%3.

Digital online publishing dispenses of print, expensive offline processes, shipping of content and is therefore far more efficient. The big question is whether the old publishers can reinvent themselves fast enough to catch-up to the efficiency levels of the new publishers born in the digital age.

Frontiers was born digital 8 years ago, and with only a tiny fraction of the resources of a traditional publisher, has managed to release a series of innovative digital services that are impacting the way scholarly publishing is evolving. It was the first publisher to build a Digital or Virtual Editorial Office to allow complete operational independence for over 60,000 editors around the world. Frontiers developed a real-time Interactive Review Forum to implement its Collaborative Review philosophy, which is geared towards fair, constructive and virtually instantaneous interactions between authors, reviewers and editors. The publisher’s entire IT ecosystem was built in-house and from scratch, rather than using the  off-the-shelf products many other publishers use. Frontiers also pioneered Article Level Metrics in 2008 to allow instantaneous tracking of readership of an article. This feature has since been adopted by many other publishers. And with over 2/3 of the approximately 200 staff being IT engineers, Frontiers’ focus is constantly on providing better and more efficient services for scientists at more competitive costs.

The inevitability of digital disruption in publishing can be seen in the total number of peer-reviewed papers. This rate is growing at around 4% per annum (based on Scopus) while the number of open-access articles is growing at approximately 20% (Bjork, 2012). With over 600,000 estimated open access papers published in 2014, the number of open-access articles could exceed the number of subscription articles as soon as 2018 (see Figure 1).

Even if this happens a few years later, researchers, libraries, universities and funders don’t have much time to start preparing for a world when all papers will be freely available on the Internet; to read, educate, analyze, drive new research and evaluate the impact any researcher has on science. The entire body of research knowledge accumulated by 2014 is estimated at around 60 million peer-reviewed research papers4 — and based on the current growth rates, the world will produce as much in the next 10 years as it has in the past 100 years. We are living in an era of exponential technologies; an era where predicting more than a few years ahead is almost impossible.

Frontiers was founded with this future in mind. There are now enough data to quantitatively measure how important being born in the digital age will be in the transformation of the publishing industry towards open-access. A recent series of analyses show that Frontiers journals have risen rapidly to overtake decade-old and even century-old journals within a few years of their launch in terms of the number of articles published, impact factors and total citations generated — all at a fraction of the cost per article when compared to the subscription-model. “Born digital” has allowed Frontiers to innovate rapidly and scale efficiently as the journals grow.  This ability to innovate has been recognized in the industry with Frontiers receiving  the ALSP Award for Innovation in Scholarly Publishing in 2014.

Here is a brief history and list of innovations pioneered by Frontiers:

  1. A publishing engine that drives articles from submission to publications using a series of over 1,000 automated workflows.

  2. A Digital Editorial Office that embodies the principles of the Frontiers peer review and publishing model and gives editors complete editorial independence and freedom to act in the review process at any time.

  3. Strengthening peer review by including both an independent phase, where a review report is submitted (the old analog way, but the report is more standardized) and an interactive phase with a real-time interactive forum that allows direct and instantaneous iterations between editors, reviewers and authors (the new digital way).

  4. Algorithms developed to help Associate Editors chose the most expert reviewers.

  5. Researcher Profiles developed to give a face to authors, editors and reviewers helping to bring transparency when editors are acknowledged on papers.

  6. Frontiers launched Article Level Metrics (ALM) in 2008 to move away from evaluating scientists by where they publish to what they publish — monitoring views, downloads, and citations, social impact, and other metrics around individual articles.

  7. The tiering concept was developed (hence the name “Fron…tiers”) to allow ALM-driven tier rising of the scientifically most impactful and socially most relevant research – automatic, crowd-sourced distillation of the most important research globally.

  8. Author Impact Metrics (AIM) were launched in 2011 and updated in 2015 to aggregate article level metrics on all papers a researcher has authored.

  9. Loop, an integrated research network platform, was developed on top of the publishing platform so that papers get widely distributed to the appropriate audience.

  10. Research Topics were developed on a specialized online platform to respond to the importance of the publisher stepping aside and allowing the community to steer the direction of science. Research Topics allow organic and grass-roots emergence of research fields.

  11. Frontiers for Young Minds was developed to provide kids 8-15 years of age the opportunity to step onto the frontlines of research, review and edit articles and interact with leading researchers.


1 B. Bjork & M. Laakso, BMC Medicine, Anatomy of open access publishing: a study of longitudinal development and internal structure, (2012 projection made up to 2014)

2 This figure is obtained by combining The STM Report (T_he STM Report: An overview of scientific and scholarly journal publishing,_ 2015) and SIMBA Report (Global Social Science and Humanities Publishing 2013 – 2014, 2013). The 2 Million figure is based on Scopus data.

3. Outsell, Open Access Primer – Market Size and Trends, 2009

4 A. Jinha, Learned Publishing, Article 50 million: an estimate of the number of scholarly articles in existence**,** 2010 (projection made up to 2014)