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What Is Open Access Anyway?

It is a truth universally acknowledged that free cheese exists only in a mousetrap, and even there it’s free only to the end user. So it’s no wonder that the traditional system of most scientific publications through publishing houses seems to be fair. A publishing house (PH) employs editors as well as technical personnel to typeset, print and distribute the paper journals. New digital technologies even allow you to buy separate articles for a mere $30 without subscription or bothering the authors for a free reprint.

However, a closer look reveals some fundamental problems with this system. The authors do not get any money for their work; on the contrary, there are usually publication fees. The reviewers and often editors work as volunteers as well. In effect, the public pays for scientific research three times: first by funding the research, second to pay for publication and, finally, to read the published results.

Open Access in a nutshell

Open Access is an alternative way to distribute the information. The process  – peer-review, rejection or correction, and final manuscript acceptance – remains the same, but the final product, the electronic version of the article, is free for the reader, either immediately after on-line publication (so called Gold Access) or with delayed access and self-archiving through the institutions (Green Access).

Open Access (OA) journals can be for profit, such as one of 200+ titles published by the OA pioneering British company BioMed Central or just self-sustaining, published by a non-profit organisation, such as very successful Public Library of Science. Even in subscription journals, some articles can be OA, because the authors have paid for it. Currently, about 20% of articles in the biosciences are published in various Open Access model journals. The reputability of OA journals varies in the same way as traditional publications, and a significant number of OA journals have Impact Factors (see this downloadable list).

Who pays for the cheese?

Publication in OA journals and monographs is funded by either the authors (just as a traditional publication would be) or by direct open access support by an institution where the authors work. The fee to publish an article in an Open Access journal in most cases is higher than traditional (PH) papers, although there are also free OA journals. However, publishing an article is not an end in itself – scientists want it to be read and cited, and most of the “Open Access vs PH journals” studies conclude that similar quality Open Access articles are not only downloaded more, but also cited more.

Zeitgeist

In an attempt to maximise profits, PHs increase the fee for institutional subscriptions every year by around 5%, so it’s no wonder that cash-strapped libraries increasingly reduce their subscriptions, creating a negative access/citation feedback. There is a grass-roots movement to boycott PH journals as well as institutional and governmental initiatives to provide free access to the scientific information. The PHs themselves have joined the OA rush: for example, Cell Press © Elsevier has started publishing OA Cell Reports. The question in the publishing industry is not whether OA can compete with the traditional subscription model, but whether PHs can find a way to retain high profit margins after a transition from subscription-based to article processing fees-based revenues.

While nobody (at least not me) can resist a chance to be published in the Nature, Science or Cell, which for the foreseeable future will not be OA, if you have a choice between publishing in a mid-ranking PH or an Open Access journal, there should be no contest between a one-off fee and a long-term accessibility. It’s better not to be pennywise in the short term and miss out on long term impact.

Where do I get the money?

What do you think about open access publishing?

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