Open Access Publishing: The advantages, nuances and the question of quality

Changes in the publishing industry dynamics

Open access, a relative newcomer to the scholarly publishing industry, with roots dating back to the early 14th century, can mean different things to different academics.

As with any exciting emerging industry trend, one encounters a lot of half-knowledge about what open access is including:

    • How it affects author’s rights,
    • Whether titles that appear in open access meet scientific quality standards and
    • Just how expensive open access is for authors?

Open-access publishing is a disruptor.

It has changed the academic publishing process for good through technological innovations that have broadened the dissemination of scientific knowledge. However, innovation hardly ever takes place with broader social impact foremost in mind. Rather, innovators typically aim to solve an immediate industry problem even while creating new problems. So it is with open-access publishing too:

Old Problem Solved: In the case of open access, the problem addressed was the restrictive cost of subscriptions that constrained wide readability and access to academic research. Open access set out (and is managing) to democratise scientific knowledge and place it back in the service of society at large.

New Problems Arising: The main problems open access encountered was the need to recover its cost in the absence of the reader-pay subscription model and maintaining the same quality control intrinsic to the traditional publishing model. As a result, the rights of parties and the assignment of cost in the publishing process changed, leading to some misinformation, confusion and criticism of the new model. For some, what used to be a ‘barrier to read’ has now started to appear as a ‘barrier to publish.’


Advantages of open access

The non-profit PLOS makes the following strong statement in defence of open access:

Open access returns us to the values of science: to help advance and improve society.”

The main arguments proffered in support of this statement are:

  •     Wider sharing: This is achieved by the removal of two sets of restrictions from prior publishing models. Firstly, in varying degrees, the author retains copyright and can share, reshare, mix, and remix the full text or parts of an open access article as often and widely as possible. Secondly, removing paywalls and subscriptions that created costly barriers to readership means that with open access, reading is free.
  •     Professional publicity: For early-career academics, the broader audience of readers, including non-academics from industry and policy environments, create opportunities for good research and interesting ideas to get noticed. It is possible for any researcher to find your article, thesis or monograph chapters online where all output is indexed to be machine-readable and open to text and data mining. Open access could not have been a ‘thing’ before digital search trends grew to a certain point.
  •     Speed in collaboration: If nothing else, open access moves at a speed that kicks sand in the face of the traditional publishing model. As seen during the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic, cutting-edge ideas and insights ready for collaboration across the world came together in hugely beneficial ways for society.
  •     Dynamic diversity: Open access authors gain not only from broader readership but also from opening their work for receiving more diverse reviews, wider feedback and ancillary perspectives that could never happen in the “looking at the world through a straw” mode of discipline-specific journals. Open-access journals are the true midwives of multi-disciplinary collaboration.


A holistic perspective on open access

There is not just one simple model of ‘open-access publishing, different open-access platforms offer several variations along a continuum, from entirely open to quite restricted:

  •     Reader rights 

The ‘most open’ of open-access journals allow immediate readership to everybody once an article is published. Thereafter, as the degree of openness diminishes, some period of embargo may be encountered, until at the other end of the ‘openness continuum’ readers start to experience progressive restrictions and eventually hit paywalls, like subscriptions or pay-per-view.

  •     Reuse rights 

Under the Creative Commons arrangement, open-access models will assign different categories of re-use rights. The most open are the CC-By-NC (Creative Commons – Non-Commercial) and CC-By-SA (Creative Commons – Share Alike) variations, so long as accreditation is still given to the original author. As restrictions increase, the CC-By-ND (Non-derivative) model stops readers from creating derivatives of the work, and finally, the least open models will maintain All Rights Reserved status.

  •     Copyright

Open access lifts a lot of restrictions on authors’ continued use of their IP. With the most open of platforms, the author retains all copyright with no restriction. This is a major break from the traditional publishing model, where publishers relied on this right to charge for subscriptions. As platforms grow less open, authors may find increased restrictions on using their work, including data and figures in other documents, presentations, teaching and derivative work. Eventually, the least open platforms will allow the author no more than fair use of work now copyrighted by the publishing platform.

  •     Author posting rights 

The optimal open-access platform will allow the author to post any version of the same work to any website or repository and without any delay. As platforms grow less open, the author may need permission to release on particular websites or repositories or face an introduction of a waiting period determined by the publisher. At the furthest end from full, open access, the author is barred from posting the work anywhere else but with the publisher.

  •     Automatic posting

Given that the strength of open access lies in its wide readability, it matters how far and how fast your open-access publisher will distribute your research. Truly open-access journals will make copies of all articles automatically available in trusted third-party repositories. As journals grow less open, release dates for such repositories may follow six months or 12 months and at times longer than this. The least open of platforms will release only selective articles to third party repositories if any at all.

With a better understanding of how this dizzying degree of variation affects their rights and restrictions, authors can better evaluate two aspects of open access: the APCs with which they are presented and the correlation between impact factors and APCs.


Authors and article processing charges (APCs)

There are two main critiques raised against the migration towards open access. Firstly, the shifting of costs to the creators of content, namely academic authors. Secondly, the suspicion that with a model geared towards instantaneous mass production and distribution, the quality of published research may bite the bullet.

The first negative impact on young researchers has been shifting the cost of publication to the author. Article processing charges can vary significantly, tallying up to several thousands of dollars on some platforms and journals. It can be prohibitive in the absence of funding by your institution.

However, in many instances, the cost could be seen as a worthwhile investment that will yield returns in terms of audience and influence. It also ensures publishers can continue to provide quality assurance and marketing visibility.  Don’t forget to check if your faculty or university library provides funding for Open Access publications.

Yet, as in every industry, there are predatory outlets that feed off the inexperience and ambition of young academics by extracting excessive APCs and causing some of the misinformation that affects the open-access industry’s hard-won reputation and the reputation of the scholars themselves.

The best way to protect oneself against such practices is to understand the basic metric: The higher the impact factors of an open-access or hybrid journal, the better reason to willingly pay higher charges. It’s also important to keep in mind that open access publications are not random collections of papers, and that these publications serve as a great guide if your academic peer group publishes there too.  


The question of quality

The more enduring debate is about the quality of content when the misplaced belief persists that open access does not have a quality peer-review process. On the contrary, there are hybrid journals and peer-reviewed open-access models where the same meticulous process that defined traditional publishing is still intact and practised with the same level of professionalism. And in many cases, this is managed by the same trusted, recognised publishers and scientists who formed the backbone of the traditional publishing model and who embraced the shift to open access.

Open access is a model that is part of a dynamic market – a model that remains committed to scientific publishing standards (despite the couple of black sheep that one finds in any emerging industry).


The more things change…

It is an exciting new world that is emerging as the full potential of digital publishing matures. However, it is worth remembering that for all the fanfare with which early adopters and advocates of new technologies typically storm their Bastilles, the fundamentals of academic publishing remain the same:

    •     Quality research matters. No platform will hide inferior research indefinitely.
    •     There are no free lunches. The cost of people’s time and resources still needs to be allocated to some participants in this endeavour. One gets what you pay for; hence, expect to pay higher APCs to publish through higher impact, higher quality open-access platforms.
    •     Time commitment by experienced volunteers as reviewers, whether on a journal template or an open access forum, is a great way for authors to grow their experience in the publishing realm.
    •     Reputation still matters, and skill and experience will still show.
    •     Your relationship with knowledgeable publishers who have built on their traditional publishing strength to embrace open access and who truly understand the lay of the new publishing landscape, along with the impact on your academic career, matters more than ever.


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