Open Access Publishing – The Perks and Perils

For decades, access to published articles has been elusive to those outside of academic settings. Published research traditionally sat behind pay walls and online publishers charged fees upwards of 40$ for a single view. These exorbitant user fees coupled with heavy subscription costs paid by academic institutions make journal publishing a lucrative endeavor. In 2015, Elsevier, one of the largest for-profit publishers posted revenues of $2.7 billion dollars1.

Open access publishing

In the 1990’s, a slew of open-access publishers emerged onto the market and effectively changed the way research was disseminated.  Open access publishers and journals adopted the philosophy that research should be accessible to the masses and that onerous user fees were stunting scientific progress. Open access is typically categorized as gold or green. Gold open access content is strictly online, while green open access refers to hybrid models that blend traditional print-based subscriptions with parallel web publishing2. Since 1993, the number of open access journals has soared by 500%3.  The Directory of Open Access Journals has indexed over 9000 titles that offer some form of open access content and this represents approximately 8% of all published journals4,5.

The benefits of open access are clear: as researchers, we can allow our work to reach anyone with an internet connection. From a philosophical perspective, if taxpayers fund research – shouldn’t they be able to have access to what they are paying for? In a study conducted by Swan and Brown, the authors found that the “principle of free access for all readers” was cited as one of the primary motivations for publishing in open access journals6. Across many disciplines, the open access model has been found to increase both readership and citation impact7,8. In spite of these findings, Swan and Brown reported that a sizable proportion of authors fear that publishing their works in open access journals can adversely impact the odds of securing research funding6.

Free to the public, but not to the authors

adobestock_73309208-2The critics of open access publishing are quick to point out flaws of this model. Even if distribution of online content is considerably less expensive than print production, open access journal publishers still have operating costs such as staffing, production, editors, copy-editing, and hosting. If revenue does not come from institutional subscriptions and user-fees, then it needs to come from other sources, such as author fees. Public Library of Science (PLoS), one of the most renowned open access initiatives charges upwards of  $2,900 dollars (USD) per published manuscript. Institutional membership options exist that allow authors within the same organization to publish their works, but the institution is left to absorb the cost. It should be noted that PLoS’s publications fees are not the norm. In fact, 84% of open access journals do not have author fees5. Among those that do, the average cost to the author varies between $500 to $1500 and waivers may be offered to scholars in developing countries9.

Predatory publishing: when open access goes bad

One of the darker sides of the open access movement is the rapid rise of predatory publishing. Predatory publishers and journals use aggressive spamming techniques to solicit article submissions from authors and employ low to non-existent peer review standards in order to exploit authorship fees10.  Beall’s criteria of predatory publishing include: editorial boards with dubious or non-existent credentials, author fees listed as the sole source of income, and opaque pricing and copyright practices. Predatory journals are not easy to spot; they often use journal titles similar to other well-known journals. They promise a quick turnaround time from submission to publication (often 2-3 months), which entices academics under pressure to publish as much and as rapidly as possible10. The number of these publishers and titles has risen dramatically over time, and yet a monitoring mechanism is lacking. The harm these illegitimate journals cause the scientific community is far reaching. Not only are authors fooled into believing that their research is being published by reputable journals, poor studies that should have been rejected are making their way into the literature. Teasing apart trustworthy information is challenging at the best of times – predatory journals only compound these complexities.

Hand draw with chalk caricature of funny businessman

In a caricature example of the dangers of predatory publishing, blogger Phil Davis submitted a manuscript written entirely by SCIgen, a software that creates a grammatically correct, yet incoherent text to The Open Information Science Journal11.  The authors received a response within four months that the manuscript had been accepted for publication (for an $800 fee) in the complete absence of any signs of peer review. Science writer John Bohannon went a step further by submitting similar variants of a deeply flawed manuscript to over 300 open access journals12. Over half of the journals accepted the paper. Journals of high and low caliber accepted the paper. Journals unrelated to the field of study accepted the paper. Journals owned by leading publishers like Sage and Elsevier accepted the paper. The previous examples are extreme, and yet, may explain why some critiques equate open access with the death of peer-review.

Can we move to an open access world?

Some herald open access as the future of academic publishing, other wary commentators doubt its fiscal sustainability. Some of the largest publishers have been important innovators – online services such as Thomson’s Web of Knowledge or Elsevier’s Scopus require income from subscriptions, beyond what could be expected from the author-pay model. Authors, however, are not ready to forgo the open access movement. Over 16,000 academics have signed a petition boycotting Elsevier13.  Other large publishing houses are moving to hybrid models of access. For example, Springer Open Choice offers both author and traditional user fee options3. What is clear is that the open access movement needs to find a way forward, striking a balance between the idealism of open access with long-term economic sustainability.



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  2. Björk BC. A study of innovative features in scholarly open access journals. J. Med. Internet Res. 2011;13(4):1-14.
  3. Laakso M, Welling P, Bukvova H, Nyman L, Björk BC, Hedlund T. The development of open access journal publishing from 1993 to 2009. PLoS One 2011;6(6).
  4. Open Access Journal Directory. Accessed August 28, 2016
  5. Fuchs C, Sandoval M. The diamond model of open access publishing: Why policy makers, scholars, universities, libraries, labour unions and the publishing world need to take non-commercial, non-profit open access serious. TripleC 2013;11(2):428-443.
  6. Swan A, Brown S. Authors and open access publishing. Learn. Publ. 2004;17(3):219-224.
  7. Davis PM. Open access, readership, citations: a randomized controlled trial of scientific journal publishing. FASEB J. 2011;25(7):2129-2134.
  8. Antelman K. Do open-access articles have a greater research impact? Coll. Res. Libr. 2004;65(5):372-382.
  9. Anderson B. Open access journals. Behav. Soc. Sci. Librar. 2004;22(2):93-99.
  10. Shen C, Björk B-C. “Predatory” open access: a longitudinal study of article volumes and market characteristics. BMC Med. 2015;13(1):230-244.
  11. Davis P. Open access publisher accepts nonsense manuscripts for dollars. 2009. Accessed August 27, 2016
  12. Bohannon J. Who’s afraid of peer review ? Sci. Mag. 2013;342:60-65.
  13. The cost of knowledge. Accessed August 29, 2016
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