How Open Access is Changing Scholarly Publishing

Guest blog by John Parsons

After almost two decades, the Open Access publishing model is still controversial, and misunderstood. Here’s where we stand today.

The beginnings of scholarly publishing correspond roughly to the Enlightenment period of the late 17th and early 18th Centuries. The practice of publishing one’s discoveries was driven by a belief—championed the Royal Society—in the transparent, open exchange of experiment-based ideas. Over the centuries, journals embraced a rigorous peer review process, to maintain the integrity (and the subscription value) of its research content.

Transparency, openness, and integrity all come at a cost, however. For many years, that cost was met by charging journal subscription fees—usually borne by institutions who either produced the research, benefited from it, or both. So long as the publishing model was solely print-based, the subscription model worked well, especially for institutions with deep pockets. That all changed with the Internet. Not only did the scope and volume of research increase rapidly, so did the perception that all information should be easily findable via search engines.

The Internet expanded the audience for research outside traditional institutions—to literally anyone with a connected device. With this expansion, the disparity between the well-funded and those less fortunate became acute. As it did with other publishing workflows, this disruption drove a need for new economic models for scholarly publishing.

Open Access Basics

Advocacy for less fettered access to knowledge is nothing new. But the current Open Access (OA) movement began in earnest in the early 2000s, with the “Three Bs” (the Budapest Open Access Initiative, the Bethesda Statement, and the Berlin Declaration by the Max Planck Institute). Much of the impetus occurred in the Scientific, Technical, and Medical, or STM publishing arena, and from research funding and policy entities like the European Commission and the U.S. National Institutes of Health. The latter’s full-text archive of free biomedical and life sciences articles, PubMedCentral or PMC, is a leading example—backed by a mandate that the results of publicly-funded research be freely available to the public.

In a nutshell, Open Access consists of two basic types—each with its own variations and exceptions. “Green” OA is the practice of self-archiving scholarly articles in a publicly-accessible data repository, such as PMC or one of many institutional repositories maintained by academic libraries. There is often a time lag between initial publication—especially by a subscription-based journal—and the availability of the archived version.

As we will discuss in future blogs, publishers and their service providers are exploring better ways to adapt their publishing workflows to the realities of OA and hybrid journals. In some cases, such as metadata tagging, XML generation, and output to print and online versions, these workflows can be highly automated. In others, publishers must find cost-effective ways to add value—while being as transparent as possible to the authors and users of journal content.

The alternative is the “Gold” OA model. It includes a growing number of journals, such as the Public Library of Science (PLOS), that do not charge subscription fees. Instead, they fund the cost of publishing through article processing charges (APCs) and other mechanisms. Although APCs are commonly thought of as being paid by the author, the real situation is more complex. Often, in cases where OA is mandated, APCs are built into the funding proposals, or otherwise factored into institutional and research budgets. PLOS and other journals can also waive APCs, or utilize voluntary funding “pools,” for researchers who cannot afford to pay them.

The appeal of Open Access is obvious to researchers and libraries of limited means. It also has the potential to accelerate research—by letting scientists more easily access and build upon others’ work. But for prestigious institutions, publishers, and their partners, the picture is more complicated.

Publishers in particular can be hard pressed to develop and enhance their brand—or offer a multitude of services that scholars may take for granted—when constrained by the APC funding model. (Those challenges will be addressed in a future blog.)

Misconceptions, Problems—and Solutions

Even today, researchers are not always clear about what Open Access means for scholarly publishing. Research librarians have their work cut out for them. They cite the common misconception that OA journals do not have an adequate peer review process, for example. This is caused by disreputable or “predatory” journals that continually spam researchers with publication offers. Librarians counter this with a growing arsenal of blacklist and whitelist sources, such as the Directory of Open Access Journals.

Perhaps a major contributor to the uncertainty surrounding OA is the practice of openly publishing “preprint” versions of articles prior to—or during the early stages of—the peer review process. Sometimes, this is part of the researcher’s strategy to secure further funding, but it can fuel the mistaken notion that peer review is not required in OA publishing workflow. Distinguishing preprints from final OA articles must be a goal for publishers and their partners.

Another problem is scholars’ unfamiliarity with the OA-driven changes in publishing workflows. Gold OA journals—particularly those involved in STM publishing—are usually quite adept at guiding authors through the publication process, just as their subscription-based counterparts and publishing service providers have been. For example, the practice of assigning Digital Object Identifiers (DOIs), ISSNs, and other metadata to scholarly publishing works is becoming increasingly efficient for both Gold OA and subscription journals.

Green OA is a thornier problem for traditional publishing workflows. Each institutional repository is separate from the others—with its own funding sources, development path, and legacy issues. A common approach to article metadata, for example, has not happened overnight. Fortunately, organizations like Crossref are working with multiple partners and initiatives to make these workflows universal—and transparent to the researcher.

Perhaps the biggest issue posed by OA is the fate of traditional, subscription-based journals. Despite the push to “flip” journals from a subscription model to Open Access, there are cases where this is simply not feasible or even desirable. Many journals have a large subscriber base of professionals who, although they value the research, do not themselves publish peer reviewed articles. This is especially true for STM publishing. Some of these journals have adopted a “hybrid” approach, charging APCs for some articles (which are available immediately) while maintaining others for subscribers only. These are eventually made Open Access under the Green model, especially when Open Access is a funding requirement.

Scanning the Horizon

As we will discuss in future blogs, publishers and their service providers are exploring better ways to adapt their publishing workflows to the realities of OA and hybrid journals. In some cases, such as metadata tagging, XML generation, and output to print and online versions, these workflows can be highly automated. In others, publishers must find cost-effective ways to add value—while being as transparent as possible to the authors and users of journal content.

Despite these challenges, Open Access is changing the scholarly publishing landscape forever. There is a compelling need for researchers to find and build upon the research of others—each needle buried in a haystack of immense proportions—to advance the human condition. Publishers and their service partners are well positioned to make that open process accessible and fair to all.

 

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