Open access academic journals – the future of publishing?

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While disseminating academic research results has traditionally had a specific format, the idea of open access is becoming more and more of a buzzword, indicating a potentially new way of thinking dissemination of knowledge in academe. So how different is this open access thinking, what does this mean in practice and what are the potential consequences?

The ‘old way’ of publishing is quite well established in the academic world. The idea of academic journals with a more or less disciplinary focus publishing academic articles has been around for centuries. However, recent decades have witnessed a shift towards  an increasing amount of journals also being electronically available, thus implying that some sort of a ‘digital revolution’ is underway. In a 2008 article, Ross and Sennyey argued that this digital revolution also has a consequence for academic libraries – what is the source for academic knowledge?

In most cases electronic journal publishing still means that the journals would go through the same procedure of peer review for publishing as paper journals and require a subscription from the reader. This would in essence mean that they still function much like the old journals, except for the digital mode of delivery. However, we are increasingly witnessing an interest in a new way of thinking where the keyword is ‘open access’ – while there is variety to what extent peer review is used, the important shift is that the information is publicly available online and free of charge for the reader.

While there is no doubt that the idea of an open, free and interconnected flow of information is appealing – what does this actually mean in practice and what can be the potential consequences?

One example of this increased attention is a recent initiative by the Higher Education Funding Council in England (HEFCE) and Research Councils UK (RCUK) who have indicated plans for cooperation for increased open access. In a recent speech highlighted at the HEFCE news section, the Minister for Universities and Science, David Willetts from the UK Department for Business, Innovation and Skills emphasized that he has stressed the importance of this in his discussions with researchers and publishers. Additionally, the news bulletin quotes David Sweeney from HEFCE, who indicated that ‘Open access publication in an appropriate form should become a key feature of the new information landscape.’ But what is this appropriate form?

One of the main arguments is increased transparency and that knowledge will be more easily accessible. Who wouldn’t like free public flow of knowledge and information that is available for everyone at any time? At times of increasing budgetary difficulties where some medical journals requiring subscriptions up to 10 000 USD per year, free access sounds indeed as a wonderful. In addition, there is the argument that increased availability will also lead to increased impact of the articles. The two issues – impact and funding – are central to this debate.

First, when one looks at the actual studies being done on the impact, there does not appear to be any clear consensus for either side of the argument. In a 2004 study, Harnad and Brody argued that it is vital to compare the  “citation counts of individual OA and non-OA articles appearing in the same (non-OA) journals”, and according to their analysis, there was significant advantage of open access. During the Open Access Week in 2010 it was suggested that there is indeed a positive impact of open access. However, more recent research reported in the Chronicle suggests that the link might not be as clear – while there is increased readership, there is no link to increased citations. On the other hand, one could argue that impact is not the only thing that counts, that increased readership is a value in itself.

It would also seem that measuring the overall impact still seems to be dependent on what one is comparing. At the end of the day, one would assume that it is the quality of the paper that is still the major factor in what will achieve high impact – so the question is: where are the quality papers published? Speculatively one could argue that researchers would attempt to publish in journals with the highest prestige, provided that prestige is a high motivational factor in academe; and in journals giving the highest ‘return’ in quantitative terms, considering the environment formed by focusing on performance indicators and rankings.

Second, and not less important, is the question of costs. While open access sounds as if the information is free of charge (and there are also free open access journals), in other cases this means that the costs are just moved from the reader to the author and a recent study indicated that these fees can range up to 4100 USD (!). While in many countries there are emerging structures for this kind of support – this is definitely not the case for all countries in the world. So – would the focus on moving the costs mean that one is effectively cutting out researchers from certain countries? While making access to research broader, does one at the same time create new barriers for publishing?

Where the old journals are seen as monopolistic, open access was/is seen as the answer, as argued in an article in THE in 2008. There is no question that having research results more publicly available is inherently a ‘good thing’.

However, the question still remains of how to achieve this and what is the appropriate model. The never-ending question of ‘who pays’ does not just disappear and shifting costs from reader to author might also create unintended consequences that undermine the idea of free flow and removal of barriers. In addition, as also argued in the Times article, one should be very careful with assuring the quality of knowledge published – open access does not mean anything goes.

If you want to find some open access journals, please check the DOAJ database.