This is the symbol for open access (image from PLoS, the Public Library of Science). Two days ago Nature Communications, a “journal that publishes high-quality research from all areas of the natural sciences” within the larger and prestigious Nature Publishing Group, announced that it will only be accepting open access (OA) submissions starting next month. Yesterday the Royal Society in London tweeted to announce the launch of their new OA journal Royal Society Open Science.
So what exactly is OA publishing? Simply put, it is the online publishing of research results that does not put any restrictions on who can read the articles, and additionally, allows further distribution and re-use of the material as long as the original source is cited. This relatively new model of publishing stands in contrast to the well-established traditional publishing model, in which readers can only access journal contents when they (or the institutions they work for) pay subscription fees. Generally, there are two types of OA publishing (for more information and resources I found the site of Peter Suber very helpful):
- “gold OA”: in the form of OA journals in which the papers are peer-reviewed before publication; examples include PLoS and BioMed Central (for a full list see the Directory of OA Journals)
- “green OA”: in the form of OA repositories in which articles are stored online and may or may not have gone through a peer-review process
If the reader no longer pays for access to information, who provides the money for the editing and publishing process? There are several models to finance OA publishing. A common model has the authors (or the authors’ institutions) pay for their publication once the paper has been accepted; this usually occurs in the form of an Article Processing Charge (APC). These fees are far from negligible: Royal Society Open Science charges £1000, PLoS Biology approximately £1800 and Nature Communications a whopping £3150.
The first drawback of OA immediately becomes obvious: not all researchers have a budget large enough to pay for the publication of their work after having spent a lot of money on the research itself. Does this mean that OA is biased towards making big and successful labs even more successful? Thankfully, OA journals usually offer to waiver the APC if the research group is based in a low-income country, and often large funding bodies support their scientists by paying for the APC as well. A way to think of the concept is to liken it to social security: those that can pay for their publications, and in doing so also support those that cannot afford the APC as well as providing money for the review process of those manuscripts that are eventually rejected.
Another concern that arises is so-called “predatory OA”, in which publishers try to make a profit from the APC without rigorously reviewing and editing papers, thus increasing the amount of badly curated information available on the internet. To counteract this trend Jeffrey Beall regularly updates a list of journals that are “questionable”.
Lastly, the question arises of whether more people actually read journal articles just because they can. Do laypeople read about discoveries on diseases in PLoS Pathogens or about replication studies and negative results in PLoS One? I don’t know the answer to this, but probably not. OA is partly an ideological step forward: who pays for most of the research conducted in institutions and universities? Taxpayers. So who should be allowed to read the outcome of this research? Taxpayers.
Assuming that laypeople do not benefit from OA, who does? Scientists/academics at small institutions that cannot afford to buy subscriptions to all journals; recent graduates that want to keep up with current scientific literature but no longer have access via their institutions; doctors with private practices that are not affiliated with hospitals: only a few days ago my mother tried to find information on the treatment of a complicated case of endometriosis (a disease in which cells of the uterine lining grow outside the uterine cavity), but she couldn’t access papers published in The Lancet or The New England Journal of Medicine, so I had to help her out by signing in using the university’s subscription.
Another perk of online OA publishing is that it is less restrictive with regards to the length of the papers published. Unlike in journals such as Science, where high impact research is squeezed on to three pages (with dozens of pages of supplementary material), OA journals can afford to “print” long articles enabling scientists to show off all their hard work.
What will the future trend be? Will all journals become OA or will there continue to be subscription-only publishing in science? From what I have read and experienced there is certainly a tendency towards more OA, also among the established high impact factor journals in the form of green OA (making the paper available six months after initial publication). Additionally, there are archives that make papers available before they are printed (e.g. arXiv for physics and computational sciences or bioRxiv for biology). It remains to be seen what long-term benefits OA publishing will have.