Why Conservation Letters is Going 100% Open Access

October 20, 2014

Eddie Game, lead scientist, Asia-Pacific Region, The Nature Conservancy. Photo courtesy of Eddie Game.

Conservation science: You’re finally about to get a little freer.

Conservation Letters, a research journal aimed at policy audiences, will go “gold standard open access” as of January 1 — making all of its content (including its archives) free to download and reuse.

Letters — which is associated with the Society for Conservation Biology — is the first high-impact applied conservation science journal to go completely open. Which might surprise some observers, since the field’s purpose is to influence conservation practice and how conservation is included in land-use planning and other societal decision-making.

Most insiders, however, know conservation is notorious for lagging behind other disciplines in terms of data- and knowledge sharing. In fact, a recent review in Conservation Biology of 20 journals aimed at conservation practitioners found that only 9 percent of their papers published since 2000 were freely downloadable — compared to 32 percent of journals in the field of evolutionary biology.

Making this development even stranger was that taking Letters gold standard open access was the idea of its publisher John C. Wiley & Sons — the same John C. Wiley & Sons whose science, technology and medical division made $106 million profit in 2011, and who (along with Elsevier and other big for-profit STM publishers) has been vilified by open access proponents.

What’s behind the move? And might it galvanize more openness for the rest of conservation science publishing? Eddie Game, associate editor for Letters and Nature Conservancy senior scientist, gave me his take.

Q: What does ‘gold standard open access’ really mean?


Completely free to all readers, all material reproducible. When we discussed it, we decided: What’s the point of going open access if it’s not true open access?

So it’ll be freely available for everyone with the same kind of license you have at PLoS journals, where you can take the figures and reuse them. And the entire back catalog of Letters will also be open access with that same licensing arrangement.

Q: Why go open access?


Wiley came to us with the idea. We thought we needed to be bundled with the standard Wiley package to institutions. And they came back to us and said, “We’ve got one other journal that we’re trialing on an open-access model out. How would you be interested in trying the same?”

Despite our high impact factor, we have a really low subscriber rate. Because of the timing of its release, Letters doesn’t get bundled with a lot of other journals, and hardly any libraries buy journals individually these days. So very few people actually have access to it. And our niche is policy-relevant science, and that relevance was being limited by the kind of circulation we had.

Conservation Letters is not a moneymaking journal for Wiley, and they’re not really depending on it for that.  They want to occupy the niche we fill as much as anything

Q: Could the impact factor go up under open access?


The reason why quality often sucks for most open-access journals is that they’re online journals, so the incentive to put more papers out to generate revenue through authors’ fees without any real cost is very tempting.

Letters is going to be a little bit different in the sense that, at least for the foreseeable future, we are going to keep the number of issues and the number of articles per issue the same.  We won’t be putting out more content, and we aren’t under any pressure from Wiley to do so.  They would prefer to see Conservation Letters continue to climb in terms of its status and impact rather than publishing more stuff to make money.

So we have to not only maintain our editorial standards but make them even clearer and more consistent.  I expect the impact factor to increase with the greater exposure rather than decrease.

I expect the impact factor to increase with the greater exposure rather than decrease.

Eddie Game

Q: Will author fees be a problem?


Some of the other editors were concerned authors from non-profits wouldn’t be able to afford the author fee to publish with us. My argument was that by the time non-profits have invested getting a piece of science or their work to the point of publication, they’ve already sunk a lot of money into it, and they want to get the maximum exposure for it.

So paying the extra $1,800 to have it published in a good open-access journal isn’t going to inhibit too many non-profit scientists.  And we are waiving the fee for scientists from developing nations. We pushed Wiley really hard on giving the associate editors and editor-in-chief the right to waive publication fees.

Q: Why hasn't this happened before in conservation science?


I’m not really sure. The discipline is pretty young and still rapidly growing. I wonder partly whether we haven’t matured to the point of thinking: “Our content isn’t increasing—how do we get greater exposure for it?”

Beyond that, it seems kind of bizarrely ironic that this discipline that aims for applied relevance — and it talks about itself as a very applied discipline — hasn’t seen more open access. Maybe people running conservation projects are not well funded, but I just find it really hard to believe that that is any different than evolutionary biology.  Given my experience in the last 15 or 20 years, conservation science has done far better in terms of getting some government grants and resources than evolutionary biologists.  I would be surprised if that’s the case.

Q: What do you think about the new hybrid trend in scholarly publishing — levying a surcharge for open licensing?


The hybrid model won’t work for most journals. It might for journals that trade on exclusivity, but it’s been available for a while, and it just hasn’t been very well taken up by the others. With Conservation Letters, we would probably have only one issue in three where an author paid for our hybrid open access. Either you are going to become a journal whose content is available, probably open access available, or it’s just the same journal, essentially. The response just isn’t there.

Q: How will Letters’ new approach impact other conservation journals?


Other senior editors of the other major journals in the field have been really enthusiastic about our move to OA, but none have indicated that they are likely to head down that road.

We can hope, but I can’t see it happening in a really rapid time frame. I think they will all be looking at Conservation Letters to see what happens to our impact factor.

That’s what many of them care about.  If we are able to be, say, like PLOS Biology and keep it high and keep it as a powerful journal, then I think many journals will be thinking seriously about it.

Journals don’t cost that much money to run. And Conservation Letters is online only. So even on the small distribution we have, at six issues a year and 10 papers an issue, Wiley will be covering their costs.

In 10 years, I suspect that open access will dominate publications…

Eddie Game

Q: Is gold standard open access the future of science publishing?


It won’t be too long before the vast majority of funders oblige scientists to put their research in open access.  Soon all government agencies and most private foundations will insist it.  In 10 years, I suspect that open access will dominate publications, just because it’s demanded by the funding sources, and the costs for doing that will come down.

One of the trends I think we’ll see is institutions getting together and agreeing to pay open-access charges, just as libraries pay for subscriptions.  For instance, Wiley has essentially a subscriber program where universities pay a set charge to Wiley, which covers the open access publication costs of their scientists.

For NGOs, the SCB membership discount is kind of a start in that direction, but perhaps we will get to a point where we have a similar institutional subscription. We’re currently exploring options with Wiley, so perhaps TNC will be a leader in this regard.


Join the Discussion

Please note that all comments are moderated and may take some time to appear.


  1. Eddie,

    Good to hear this journal is making the switch to OA. I have a suggestion and a question. May I suggest to move away from issues to continuous publishing, to speed up publication? Especially since you will be e-only this seems a viable route.

    The question I have is on cost. Could you explain why publishing in CL will has annAPC of 1800 USD compared to say 100-300 for PeerJ? Does CL provide six times more value added to the research community?

  2. Thanks Jeroen. In effect we do have continuous publication as you suggest because all our papers will be posted online as “Early View” as soon as they are ready. We still plan on collating them into issues, however, because it gives us the chance to publicize the issue which provides each paper with greater exposure.

    With regard to publication charge it is worth noting that the publication charge will be $1,480 for Society of Conservation Biology members. SCB membership costs $80 a year if you live in a developed country and $20 a year if you’re a student or from a developing country so I really hope that most authors are paying this lower fee. Re the difference with PeerJ, part of the answer is the publicity we are able to provide authors which we think increases the impact of the science we publish, and part is the volume of papers. Our journal has a narrow focus and a limited set of papers published each year so there is are far fewer papers to spread the cost of publication across.

  3. Great news!

    One simple question though: what licence will the new Conservation Biology open access articles be published under, from 2015?

    RCUK-funded researchers need to publish their work under the Creative Commons Attribution Licence (CC BY) if they choose the ‘gold’ route. CC BY is also the recommended licence of OASPA (the Open Access Scholarly Publishers Association).

    If would be great if you could provide further detail on this. Licensing matters!

  4. Hi Ross. Thanks for the support. You’ll be pleased to know that Conservation Letters will be using the Creative Commons Attribution License (CC-BY) for all of its published articles and as such is fully compliant with all government and funder mandates. Best. Eddie

  5. I was excited to see that Conservation Letters is going OA – it’s always cheering to see a title making that transition, and I expect we’ll be seeing a lot more over the coming years.

    However, the current state of play isn’t as bad as suggested in the Conservation Biology article. The review concluded that only 9% of papers were “freely downloadable”, but only looked at papers freely downloadable from the journal’s website. Those which were distributed through institutional or subject repositories, or via the authors’ own websites – effectively, all the forms of green OA – were not counted.

    I don’t have firm numbers on this, but I would be astonished if it doesn’t at least double the amount of the papers which are available to an unaffiliated reader…

    1. Hi, Andrew:

      Thanks for your comment. You’re right — those avenues would increase the percentage of papers freely downloadable to non-subscribers. Unfortunately, search isn’t perfect and personal websites disappear and/or are culled. Even if your assumption is correct and those avenues more than double the percentage of papers available, that still leaves roughly 4 in every 5 applied conservation science papers behind paywalls. That still-steep percentage would seem to hinder the primary purpose of such knowledge dissemination: changing practice for the better.