The move toward Open Access (OA) journals is now over 20 years old. Opponents and proponents are both quite vocal regarding the benefits of OA versus paywall journal publishing. As paywall subscription journals are attempting to adjust to the rise of OA, you may wonder which route is best.
So, what is OA and how does it work?
Open Access allows scientists to publish their research and findings in scholarly online sites available to anyone “without financial, legal, or technical barriers other than those inseparable from gaining access to the internet itself.” Although most OA journals will charge the scientist publishing the study a publication fee, anyone and everyone with access to the Internet can read these works for free. Other fees may still apply, but through OA, scientists can easily access publications and share them within their own digital repositories or others.
Conversely, scientific and research journals that use a paywall may charge fees for both the author and reader to access articles. However, these journals generally enjoy greater visibility, reputation, and prestige within the scientific and academic communities.
Publication in top-tier journals is important for scientists for many reasons, including the possibility of tenure, promotions, grants, and funding. Conventionally, top-tier journals have been paywall journals, although there are many notable exceptions.
To help you better understand the differences, we’ve outlined a basic overview and comparison of OA versus the traditional paywall journals.
Paywall journals are familiar to most scientists. Many of these journals are published by well-recognized publishers, and possess powerful reputations and strong legitimacy. Paywall journals require paid subscriptions to access the journal and are usually successful because of their status and the high demand to publish in highly respected journals. The high demand can create a bottleneck for editors in deciding which papers to accept. The editorial time delay is compounded by the next step in the process, peer review, which may take several months to complete, and the publication process itself may further delay the release of the paper.
Another downside to paywall journals is that the cost of subscribing to the journal may prevent widespread dissemination of the scientific findings. Scientists in developing countries often do not have access to these papers because of budgetary issues. Even in well-funded institutions, scientists in niche fields may find their libraries do not subscribe to the specific journals they require for access to relevant research in their fields.
Paywall journals are usually published by for-profit companies. The profit generated by the journals’ content is not shared with the authors of the content. In fact, the vast majority of that content is developed from publicly funded research, which reveals another issue with paywall journals: profiting from public funds. In addition, the number of of publishers of primary science articles has diminished in the last few decades as publishing companies consolidate, placing the editorial decision of what is publishable in the hands of fewer individuals. Further, the publishers usually take ownership of the copyright of the manuscript upon acceptance for publication, further restricting the author from using the data and text for other purposes.
While scientists at most universities can currently access paid journal subscription articles, they often don’t realize that universities have to pay unwieldy sums in order to make the research available. Most journals are not free, and are, in fact, expensive. The universities must carry the costs of a large load of subscription fees for numerous journals across the many disciplines researchers require for their work. Many scientists and institutions feel that paywall journal subscriptions are financially infeasible and, further, go against the principles of good science practices; that is, sharing information.
Additionally, paywall journal site licenses can be limited and availability of content tightly contained. Access for non-subscribers to articles in a paywall journal requires the payment of a fee to read them, which can be cost-prohibitive to those seeking access to papers for use in their own research, particularly if their university or facility does not subscribe to the specific journal required. In other words, reader cost is the primary stumbling block with this avenue of publication. However, publication in one of these highly-regarded scientific journals can be instrumental in advancing a scientist’s career and offers a myriad of benefits as described above.
Open Access Journals:
As an alternative to paywall science journals, OA journals have emerged as an attractive option.
OA journal publishing claims to spread knowledge for the furthering of science research by digital means, thereby avoiding the often prohibitive cost of loss of copyright inherent in paywall publishing. That said, many of these journals simply do not possess the prominence or excellent reputation of many paywall journals.
OA is a submission-fee rather than paid subscription model. The submission fee is called an article processing charge (APC). APCs range from US$1000 to >US$11,000, and are often paid by funders or universities. Only recently, however, has NIH allowed these fees to be included in grant applications. While most peer-reviewed OA journals, 67% in 2023, do not charge publication fees at all according to the Directory of Open Access Journals, in general, the higher the impact of the journal, the higher the APC.
To reduce the costs of publishing, some OA journals do not perform pre-publication processing of the manuscript. That is, it is the responsibility of the authors to ensure that the manuscript is publication-ready upon submission because the journal does not copy-edit the text, format the text, review or format the figures, or check the references for accuracy. These pre-publication functions fall upon the author.
A downside to publishing in some OA journals is a potential lack of credibility and academic reach, with the upside encompassing lower or complete lack of fees to access the published article and wider dissemination, as assessed by increased numbers of citations. However, those scientists hesitant to publish in OA journals may want to consider the high citation factor of work published in OA journals.
The OA Citation Advantage
Publishing in an OA journal has a clear advantage in that the increased access to the journal leads to increased citations. The lack of a paywall allows more people to access to the paper and therefore papers published in OA journals are cited more often. A meta analysis by the OpCit Project reported that there is a clear citation advantage for OA articles (SPARC Europe – Open Access – OACA).
Types of OA
And, just to add another layer of complexity to this entire domain of OA, there are four types of Open Access journal publications: Green, Gold, Platinum, and Diamond.
Green Open Access
Green Open Access typically allows scientists to upload drafts and/or pre-published works to a digital preprint repository. These articles may or may not have been peer-reviewed, but are immediately accessible to the general public. With the Green OA model, articles are universally archived, theoretically removing the need for journal subscriptions. This type of OA has long been used by scientists in the Physical Sciences.
Gold Open Access
Gold Open Access denotes scholarly articles that have been peer-reviewed and are available for publication in their final form. Publication fees usually apply. These journals may or may not provide immediate access to the general public for these works.
Diamond and Platinum Open Access
Diamond and Platinum Open Access is a relatively new phenomenon within the OA sphere. Diamond is similar to Gold, and will incorporate publication fees for authors, but not readers. Platinum, on the other hand, is fully open access and typically doesn’t charge any fees at all. Platinum open access journals are usually published by nonprofit societies and associations.
There are actually several other components involved within these tiers, including hybrids, and a profuse range of tangential fees. The vast amount of minutiae can be staggering. Additionally, access, as defined by the scientific community, can differ greatly, which only lends to the confusion.
Many scientists are uncomfortable pre-publishing their works and allowing others to see those works without the benefit of peer review (e.g., Green OA). Others are distrustful of unknown journals, many of which simply don’t have the proven validity of traditional, well-respected, scientific journals. On the other hand, those researchers and scholars reared in the digital domain are far more likely to experiment with OA models due to the potential of increased public access and opportunity to publish without the rigors required by paywall journals.
OA provides several benefits to researchers, institutions, and the general public, including enhanced visibility and impact of scientific research, wide public engagement, and increased citations. Concerns remain to be addressed, however, such as economic challenges regarding APCs, funding challenges, quality control issues, and predatory OA publishers.
The future of paywall journals may appear tenuous considering the popularity of OA, but don’t count them out, yet. While many academics are enthused by the freedom and cost-effective factors of OA publishing, others are cautioning against premature celebration.
Despite the many benefits of Open Access, the conversation continues. Which route will you choose?