Open-access vs traditional publishing: Here’s what you need to know

open access vs. traditional publishing

A photojournalist travelling the Kenyan countryside explains in her Newsweek feature how her guide stops at a roadside ice-cream shack in the middle of nowhere after a long day in the field. She is offered three flavours: vanilla, strawberry or chocolate. Hailing from Seattle, where the ice-cream freezers in her local supermarket take up an entire back wall, she waxes lyrical about the elegance of simple choices.

Choosing between traditional journals versus open-access academic publishing is more complex than being faced with low-fat, choc-chip, Ben & Jerry vs Häagen-Dazs kinds of moments. Furthermore, if one had to ignore the effect on the waistline, selecting the correct publishing route is certainly more impactful in the long run.

It is nice to have the luxury of choice, so here are some markers to guide you on this academic publishing safari. (Note that some bloggers warn against a different type of predator on the loose in the open-access publishing jungle.)


Fit for Purpose

We will assume that you have done the hard work of clarifying your career goals and planning the pathway towards their attainment. Let this be your starting point.

Then ask: Will your next steps and long-range goals be better served by that one seminal paper in a hugely prestigious academic journal central to your field, or rather by racking in citations from multiple, lesser-known or emerging journals, even if some of the Open Access (OA) journals are still awaiting their Impact Factor (IF) score?


Your choices, independent of the cost, are likely between:

  •     Traditional print journals, limited in circulation due to subscriber fees, yet with well-respected peer review processes; or
  •     Hybrid traditional print journals with the same credible peer review process, that also circulate digital versions, yet are still behind some form of paywall; or
  •     Credible OA journals that have established a quality peer-review process and have a proper IF rating; or
  •     Emerging OA journals offer large audiences but may lack the prestige associated with the former choices or pay lip service to peer review.

In short, does your next career move point towards quality or quantity? You be the judge…


Your Audience

Stroll down to the faculty lounge. Count the number of bow-ties versus the number of hipster beards. This may tell you something about the cultural milieu of your research.  Now, think carefully about who should read and engage in your research, not generally, but very specifically: names, titles, institutions, associations.

Are you targeting traditionalists with office shelves decked in books and whose career success had been consistently validated by the touch of paper and their name in print? Or, are you plugged into a fast-moving generation of researchers wholly in love with the diffusion, democracy and diversity of the digital age?

The very reason why you have to make this tricky choice is that it has been challenging for traditionalists to let go of what they see as genuine authenticity: manuscripts with endless annotation scribbles during peer review. Regardless of how you feel about it, respect their bias if you need them to respect your output.  Remember that the average age of tenure track professors is 49 years. They saw other revolutions before digital arrived.

If you know your audience, you will know what platform they value.


The Need for Speed

There is one dimension where OA simply leaves traditional journal publishing in its wake, and that is the speed of information dissemination. It has other benefits, too, particularly if the editing process is marked by quality and care.

In the traditional model, however, it takes time to move a submission from the editor’s desk to the final, published journal accessible in the university library.Once it goes out to peers for review, deadlines may not necessarily be strict, as these are volunteers. Do not even think of pushing for quick answers. Because your peers are thoughtful and capable, they will return your manuscript with suggested changes or rewrites. (Worst case, you’ll receive a thumbs down.) Also keep in mind that the ethics of publishing require you to place some form of embargo on your research under review by that particular journal until you have a definitive answer. Thorough it may be. Prestigious, too. But the wheels turn slowly.

Alternatively, you may find yourself operating in a fast-moving field where new research appears daily (consider the transformative speed of all things Covid-related this past year). If you want to get your results and ideas into circulation, become part of a wider net of global collaboration or find the discourse around your work that’s topical and urgent. The digital highway and its broad-based, free accessibility may suit your purpose best.

Even with OA journals that have a strict peer review process in place, the time between submission and dissemination of your work is likely to be much shorter, and the immediate audience much larger.

Regardless, do not think for one moment that there are no tough choices to make in the OA environment, too. That remains the pervasive issue with all things digital – finding value amidst all the mediocre noise.


Grand Unifying Theory or Work-in-Progress

Digital OA is democratic and discursive. Far more so than the traditional print journals where subsequent critiques and disavowals may escape even the most acute researcher. The interconnectedness of the digital world, along with its sense of impermanence, makes it the ideal platform for the brave, open-to-criticism young researcher who honestly craves a more immediate feedback loop. For some, it can be considered as an excellent tool for work-in-progress.

Very few academics achieve that one definitive paper, the one cited in almost every literature review in your field. If you feel you have the potential to publish what some academics refer to, tongue-in-cheek, as that “grand unifying theory of it all,” that one paper that sets a new boundary condition or opens a whole new field of enquiry, then you want that captured on the most prestigious, authentic and enduring of platforms – the old-fashioned way.


Key Takeaways

The good news is that there are innovative publishers who have quickly adapted to the changes. They are creating ways to advise and guide academics through this quagmire and bring the best of their traditional publishing expertise to the exciting hybrid world of the future.

Most importantly, by such publishers doing the hard work on their side in creating sustainable hybrid publishing models, you can trust that they have little commercial bias towards one or the other.

Speak to a publisher willing to have an honest conversation about your options, with your best interest, rather than their own, paramount.


© Pixabay 2021 / image: StockSnap