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Two roads to open access

by PhilipJ on 4 May 2007

Earlier today I attended the local open access talks I mentioned last week on Transformative Change in the System of Scholarly Communication & Publishing Worldwide: the Case for Open Access to Research. I particularly enjoyed the talk by Dr. John Willinsky on what all the fuss surrounding open access is (or used to be). He now says “used to be”, because he feels we’ve reached the tipping point, that open access has become popular enough that it will continue to grow on its own. But it’s happening through two different mechanisms, and they don’t quite reach the same destination.

The first road is through strictly open access journals. We’ve talked at length here about the Public Library of Science, which publishes peer-reviewed, open access science right now. Anyone is able to read any of the articles the minute they’re off the digital press, with the only real downside coming from the publication fees that authors face. These can be mitigated somewhat via funding agencies or special programs with PLoS, but they are a barrier to the complete embrace of open access. I imagine these fees will decrease over time, as the economics of open access publishing are better understood.

The second road, which many of the societal journals like PNAS are using, is the moving window to open access. Articles as published are not by default open to the public, and can only be accessed via subscription or individual purchase. They remain this way for a 6 month period, upon which the articles are all free to read. You can speed this process up by paying a special fee to make your article open access from the get go, but given budget (and other) constraints, this doesn’t occur very often. Others allow self-archiving, where after 6 months from the publication date you can put a PDF of your paper on your website, or submit it to a repository like PubMed Central.

The first road is the truly open model, and I hope PLoS and other entirely open access publishers thrive and prove to be viable by breaking even financially. The second road seems to admit that open access is in demand by both the consumers of scientific articles as well as the scientists themselves, but it ultimately doesn’t make sense to me. When open access journals are as widely read as their closed access cousins (and PLoS Biology is proving that it doesn’t take long to become a first rate journal), what incentive will there be to continue publishing in closed access journals?

If you ask me, there won’t be any. The second road being travelled by for-profits and society journals is only slowing, not stopping, the march to a fully open access culture in the sciences.



  1. Rosie Redfield    2787 days ago    #

    Cost is still a big barrier.

    We would have to pay an extra £1250 ($2500 US) to make our latest paper open access. For many researchers, that’s a lot of money that could be spend on doing the research. Only very idealistic or very well funded researchers will choose to pay.

    Ideally the granting agencies would explicitly cover publication costs as part of the cost of research, but this isn’t happening yet..


  2. PhilipJ    2787 days ago    #

    Right, cost is definitely the biggest barrier right now, but it is my belief that as the economics of running an open access journal are better resolved (keeping in mind that the PLoS, for example, is only a few years old), the publication fees should decrease.

    We should also take into account the access costs to closed-access journals, even if it is not out of a specific research group’s operating grant. Every university library in the world (save those exempt in third world countries) spends millions every year to have the subscriptions that they do. I don’t know the specific numbers, but I would argue that some of that money could (and should!) be rearranged by university administrators to support open access publications. Why are we paying to see our own work? Why not use that money to pay for everyone to see our work?


  3. TheBrummell    2784 days ago    #

    What will bring the publication cost of open access (such as PLoS) down?

    Is there a business model based on haemorrhaging money? At what point does a non-zero cost become low enough that it’s not really a barrier any more? $100? $10?

    I like your suggestion about university libraries diverting money from paying for subscriptions to paying for publications, but I suspect a problem may arise in that where one does research controls which journal one’s research gets published in.


  4. PhilipJ    2784 days ago    #

    Brummell – Volume! The more people publishing in a PLoS journal should invariably lead to everyone’s publication fees go down. I suspect it costs a near constant amount of money to put out PLoS Biology every month, whether the number of research articles is 15 or 25. Share this over all the journals (the new startup journals are invariably going to need some floating until they have their audience, in both submissions and readers), and you (or at least I) can imagine the fees decreasing over time.

    Until we decide that the status quo isn’t good enough anymore, it will of course be a big challenge (though thankfully PLoS and others are ignoring this, and it looks more and more like they will succeed). It doesn’t make sense to publish in Elsevier (or Kluwer or whoever) journals which turn around and continuously gouge excessive money from our own libraries. There has to be a better way.


  5. TheBrummell    2780 days ago    #

    “Volume! The more people publishing in a PLoS journal should invariably lead to everyone’s publication fees go down.”

    Alright, I’ll accept that. So, it’s early days yet, and we can hope that this trend will occur. Cool.


  6. Bill    2777 days ago    #

    For many researchers, that’s a lot of money

    I’ve paid close to that in page charges. Also, PLoS and BMC will work on a sliding scale for less well-heeled researchers, and there are a lot of OA journals that charge far less than the flagship PLoS journals. Not only that, but depositing your work in an OA institutional repository costs nothing at all! (Some 90% of journals will allow author archiving, so you can have your cake and eat it too: publish in a traditional journal and make your paper OA by self-archiving.)


  7. Bill    2777 days ago    #

    Oh, and it just occurred to me: the usual terminology around roads and OA is as follows:

    Gold Road = OA journals
    Green Road = self-archiving


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