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A plan to open up science journals

Cambridge’s Labtiva applies the iTunes sales approach to often costly research

Sinisa Hrvatin and Robert McGrath, founders of ReadCube Access.

Essdras M Suarez/Globe Staff

Sinisa Hrvatin and Robert McGrath, founders of ReadCube Access.

Science publishing today is much like the pre-iTunes days of music sales, when customers who wanted just one song from an artist had to buy a whole album.

University libraries and companies have to buy yearlong subscriptions, called site licenses, to give ­researchers access to a handful of articles. But at several thousand dollars or more per subscription, even the richest libraries can’t ­afford to buy every scientific journal that’s published. And most researchers can’t justify the $30 to $50 single-article fee or the wait of weeks or months for an interlibrary loan.

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So, libraries pay for material they don’t need, researchers are unable to access scientific papers they do need, and publishers produce content their audience can’t afford.

“I don’t think I’ve ever met a researcher who said they did not have an access problem,” said Sinisa Hrvatin, a PhD candidate in biology at Harvard University. “The market is not optimized.”

Hrvatin and his college roommate, Robert McGrath, think they can solve the problem by incorporating an iTunes model of ­single sales. Reducing the cost of individual articles — with some restrictions to protect the publishing business — will help scientists keep up with research and help libraries hold down costs, say the pair, who have named their product ReadCube Access.

So far, the two entrepreneurs, who are founders of a Cambridge company called Labtiva, have sold the ReadCube Access idea to the industry giant Nature Publishing Group and to the University of Utah’s library system, which started implementing it this fall.

Researchers at the University of Utah can get access to individual journal articles in one of Nature’s 80 or so subscription-based publications, many of which Utah cannot afford to buy. The library is charged under $6 for articles researchers decide to rent for a limited time and $11 or less (depending on the publication) for articles they buy. Researchers cannot yet print out the articles, and much like with iTunes, they cannot share the content with colleagues.

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McGrath and Hrvatin hope to expand ReadCube Access to many more publishers and ­libraries.

The two are hoping their creation will complement a desktop tool called ReadCube they created to help scientists organize their research material.

“The idea was to try to simplify research — organizing what you have on a computer, finding new information that’s relevant,” said McGrath, a computer scientist who is chief executive of Labtiva.

ReadCube was successfully alerting scientists to new studies in their field — but the researchers often hit a wall, because they couldn’t access the studies. That bottleneck is what McGrath and Hrvatin are trying to address with ReadCube Access.

Rick Anderson, interim dean of the J. Willard Marriott Library at the University of Utah, said his library long ago cut site licenses that were not used frequently.

“Our journal collection is very, very lean,” he said, which means many researchers are doing without papers that are important to their work.

He likes the concept of ReadCube Access, but is concerned that it will work too well, driving up library costs — particularly if it expands beyond Nature Publishing Group’s journals. He has limited access so far to the chemistry department to gauge demand before deciding whether to include other departments.

“If we opened something like this up across the campus, you’d be taking a very big risk that your entire materials budget would get blown out in a month,” Anderson said.

Fundamentally, Anderson said, the current model of scientific publishing is inefficient.

Allowing affordable single-article sales would make it more efficient by giving researchers access to the specific articles they want, rather than forcing them take a yearlong subscription, with many articles they don’t need.

But in addition to putting a financial strain on libraries, it might not be good for publishers, Anderson said, just as iTunes has upended the financial model of the music industry, which can no longer count on buyers to pay for 18 songs instead of one.

There is also a major push in scientific publishing today to make journal articles available for free. This open-access model has led to the creation of some journals whose materials are all available free or are paid for by the authors instead of the subscribers. But the majority of the industry is still on a fee-for-use basis.

Nature Publishing Group said it agreed to participate in ReadCube Access as an experiment in the current economic climate.

“We are all interested in experimenting with new business models and providing access to the literature in new ways,” David Hoole, marketing director for Nature Publishing Group, wrote in an e-mail.

Digital Science, a subsidiary of Nature Publishing Group’s parent firm, Macmillan Publishers Ltd., provided Labtiva with $2 million in venture funding two years ago, so a relationship already existed between the two companies, Hoole said.

Hoole said he does not see the rental or the cheaper ­single-article option as a threat to any of Nature’s 80 site-license or subscription-based journals.

“Site licenses, generally, still offer the best value for money, where the cost per download can be as little as a few cents,” he said.

“So I don’t think there is any risk to the subscription business from this type of article rental.”

Karen Weintraub can be reached at Karen@KarenWeintraub.com.
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