The move toward Open Access journals is now over 20 years old. Opponents and proponents are both quite vocal regarding the benefits of Open Access versus paywall journal publishing. As paywall subscription journals are attempting to adjust to the rise of Open Access, you may wonder which route is best.
So, what is Open Access 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 of these 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 Open Access, 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 Open Access versus the traditional paywall journals.
Most scientists are familiar with paywall journals, often published by well-recognized and reputable publishers. These journals require paid subscriptions due to their prestigious status, resulting in a high demand for publication. This demand can create editorial bottlenecks, further exacerbated by lengthy peer review processes that can span months, causing delays in paper publication.
Cost Limits Access
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.
Inequity in Profit Sharing
For-profit companies typically publish paywall journals that don’t share profits with content authors. Much of this content originates from publicly funded research, raising concerns about profiting from public funds. Consolidation among publishing companies has reduced the number of primary science article publishers, limiting editorial control. Additionally, publishers often retain copyright upon manuscript acceptance, further restricting the author’s use of the data and text.
Hidden High Costs
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 the availability of content is 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, Open Access journals have emerged as an attractive option.
This type of 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.
Open Access 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 Open Access 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 Open Access 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 of these journals is a potential lack of credibility and academic reach. The upside includes lower or lack of fees for accessing the published article and wider dissemination, as assessed by increased numbers of citations. However, those scientists hesitant to publish in these journals may want to consider the high citation factor of work published in journals.
The Citation Advantage
Publishing in an Open Access journal has a clear advantage in that the increased access to the journal leads to increased citations. The absence of a paywall enables more people to access the paper, resulting in higher citation rates for papers published in journals. A meta-analysis by the OpCit Project reported that there is a clear citation advantage for articles (SPARC Europe – Open Access – OACA).
Retention of Copyright
An important advantage of Open Access is that the author often retains the copyright to their materials (text, figures, tables, etc.). Why is this an important consideration? Retaining copyright allows the authors to reuse their materials in subsequent publications or related articles. In this age of content scanning for plagiarism concerns, authors of articles are free to reuse their text (e.g., materials and methods) and do not have to spend precious time re-wording already well-written text. With Open Access copyright retention, the author gets to decide how and when to use their own intellectual property.
Types of Open Access
And, just to add another layer of complexity to this entire domain of Open Access, there are 4 types of journal publications: Green, Gold, Platinum, and Diamond.
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 undergo peer review but are instantly accessible to the general public. The Green model universally archives articles, theoretically eliminating the necessity for journal subscriptions. Scientists in the Physical Sciences have long employed this form of Open Access.
Gold Open Access provides peer-reviewed scholarly articles that are available 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
The Diamond and Platinum Open Access designations are relatively new. The Diamond level is similar to Gold and incorporates 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 journals are usually published by nonprofit societies and associations.
These tiers involve several other components, including hybrids, and encompass a wide 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). Others are distrustful of unknown journals, many of which simply don’t have the proven validity of traditional, well-respected, scientific journals. In contrast, researchers raised in the digital era are more inclined to experiment with models for increased public access and easier publishing compared to paywall journals’ requirements.
There is no right or wrong answer here. Individuals must ascertain for themselves whether published articles should appear in paywall or Open Access journals. As with all emerging and developing trends, the track record of Open Access in this regard may not prove substantive enough for some while others may find the lack of requisites and oftentimes onerous fees refreshing and worthwhile.
Open Access offers benefits like enhanced research visibility, increased impact, public engagement, retention of copyright, and more citations. Yet, challenges include economic issues with APCs, funding, quality control, and predatory Open Access publishers.
The future of paywall journals may appear tenuous considering the popularity of Open Access, but don’t count them out, yet. While many academics enthusiastically embrace the freedom and cost-effective aspects of publishing, others caution against premature celebration.
Despite the many benefits of Open Access, the conversation continues. Which route will you choose?