By Danielle Gelinas, PhD
There is intensifying, even heated, debate across the research community as to whether the future of scholarly publishing lies in the open access (OA) model or in the traditional subscription-based format. The dissemination of scientific information has traditionally been print-based, in the form of journals made available to readers by subscription.
Of course, in the digital age, all of those journals are available online but only to paying subscribers. OA publications, on the other hand, are available for free to anyone with access to the Internet, and articles may be downloaded, copied, printed, or used for any legal purpose. The question is, will the future of academic publishing veer completely toward the OA model, or will the traditional publishing framework endure as the dominating force in scholarly communication? The answer seems to be a combination of the two.
The fundamental difference between OA and traditional publishing is in their business structure. Rather than through subscriptions, OA publishers are funded by an “author-pays” model, where the author or funding agency supporting the research pays a publishing fee, usually anywhere between tens of dollars to several thousands. The publisher can afford then to make electronic copy of articles available for free to any reader, any time, with no copyright issues. The time to process an OA article, from acceptance to online publication, generally takes two to several months.
By contrast, traditional journals are supported by subscriptions, which are typically paid from the coffers of government institutions and university libraries. Research manuscripts published in traditional journals are subject to copyright agreement (the journal holds the copyright) and are available only to those having the financial resources to pay the hefty subscription fees. The submission-to-publication process is significantly longer in the traditional system and may take many months to a year.
At best, OA proponents see OA publishing as the most egalitarian method to communicate science; at worst, critics of OA argue that the author-pays publishing model is doomed to failure. Financing a journal on submission fees alone, they argue, is unsustainable, ripe for author exploitation, and may create a breach for weak science to creep in. A journal existing solely on funds collected through author submissions runs the risk of bankruptcy during periods of low publishing activity. Traditionalists warn that this urgent financial dependence on publication volume will ultimately diminish editorial quality and open the door to shoddy science.
Proponents of OA, on the other hand, see it as an empowering, inclusive publishing net cast across the global research community, giving resource-poor scientists, particularly in developing countries, the opportunity to publish in peer-reviewed journals. Many of these researchers are not supported by wealthy institutions who can afford the exorbitant cost of traditional journal subscriptions.
OA publishing may present its greatest impact for researchers in developing countries, particularly for those working in fields such as public health, in mitigating the economic barriers to reporting and accessing valuable and timely information. In this sense, the OA framework creates a forum for researchers to quickly share their findings to any interested party, regardless of resource constraints.
Beyond economic necessity, some researchers may wish to publish their work in OA journals if they feel their findings have important societal application or provide valuable information in serving a social need. Increasingly, funding agencies are requiring that researchers publish their publicly-funded research in OA journals. This mandate makes information available to taxpayers who have a right to access the research they have supported.
OA publishing is clearly entrenched as a dominant player in scientific communication, with the Directory of Open Access Journals now listing 9,804 titles, and stakeholders including publishers, editors, librarians, universities, governments, and researchers are working to fine tune a system that best serves the research community and the public. Scientists have various motivations for presenting their work, all of which cannot be served by a single publishing framework but might be better served by a system that uses attributes of both traditional and OA models.
This sentiment is manifest in the publishing industry with the establishment of assorted distinctions of OA. For example, “gold route” publishing provides full access is in the strictest sense, and “green route” or “self-archiving” is used by researchers who choose to publish in traditional journals but wish to retain the right to make their articles freely accessible in organizational or university archives after a prescribed amount of time. Self-archiving would better serve a researcher in a patent-pending situation, for example, not a public health physician contenting with an infectious disease.
As the debates about OA and traditional publishing roar on within the scientific community, individual researchers will continue to communicate using the best options available to them. The answer regarding which publishing systems serves the community best appears to be a combinatorial work in progress, one that will evolve according to the needs and demands of researchers, universities, governments, publishers, and the public.
Danielle Gelinas is a medical and life sciences editor, and a freelance consultant with PlainLanguageScience.ca.
- 9-min video clip explaining the issues here
- More information: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/open_access
- UK-based OA blog: http://poynder.blogspot.co.uk/