Open Access Publishing Is Not Perfect, Yet

No-one would disagree with the goals of open access publishing: free access to scientific literature for all. If you work in an institution or small company that can’t afford to pay journal subscription fees you’ll know the problems that lack of access can cause.

But publishing costs money, and someone has to pay those costs. Administration of the peer review process, copyediting, typesetting and graphics work and, of course, printing all require costly manpower.

The traditional business model has been to load the cost onto institutions and individuals who pay subscription fees to the publishers. But since the advent of the internet wiped out the requirement for one of those major costs (printing), some publishers, new and old, have moved to different business models that allow open access to their articles.

The most common open access models are:

  • Gold Open Access: All articles in the  journal are free access. This is most commonly funded by author fees (e.g. PLoS) or advertising (e.g. Biotechniques).
  • Hybrid Open Access: Traditional subscription journals where individual articles can be made free either upon payment of a fee by the author or unilaterally by the journal editor (to help market the journal).
  • Delayed Open Acess: Traditional subscription journals where all articles become open access after a specified period
  • Green Open Access: Personal self-archiving of either the final copy or, to avoid copyright restrictions, the final peer-reviewed pre-print draft of a manuscript you have published elsewhere (click here fore more details on self-archiving).

Open Access is Not Free

All of these models (apart from green open access, which is actually not really a model) have one thing in common with the traditional subscription model: they cost. They are just different ways to obtain the money required to fund the publication process.  In the case of PLoS, for example, the burden of cost is placed on the author (it costs between $1350 and $2900 per author) and in many cases this money has to come from funds that would otherwise have been allocated to fund research. And in the hybrid open access journals the old journal elitism still reigns – the higher the impact factor, the higher the Open Access fee.

So while Open Access might eliminate subscription fees, instead it makes publishing expensive for the author. In a purely Open Access world it is easy to imagine a situation where researchers in a cash-strapped institution or small company are prevented from publishing their latest work in most journals because of the cost.

Is PLoS the way forward?

Now that articles are published on the internet, do we really need journals anyway? Perhaps all we need is a central body that acts as a repository for all literature and organiser and arbiter in the peer review process. This is what PLoS aims to be.

Having one huge, non-profit publisher like PLoS could make things a lot simpler, and less expensive, for authors and readers alike. An all-encompassing PLoS could presumably work hard to reduce author costs to a minimum through cost saving and negotiating grants from governments and others. And PLoS already waives author charges without question to those who say they can’t afford it, so publishing, as well as reading, would be Open Access. Funding bodies too would have to catch up and realise that Open Access costs must be factored in and a centralised, uniform publication process could make this simpler.

Open Access is not perfect yet, but if we could reduce the burden on the author and streamline the publishing process, it could be pretty close.

Do you think PLoS is the way forward? Are there any disadvantages in having one, central publishing body? Let us know in the comments.

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