A Map for the Maze of Open-Access Publishing

Some readers may be familiar with the recent debate on open-access publishing, the movement to provide free public access to scholarly research via the Internet. Some may have heard that Science magazine published some research that claimed to prove the low quality of open access journals, because a large proportion of them accepted a severely flawed paper for publication. In reality, as many have commented in a Guardian blog, the research proved no such thing, primarily (and paradoxically) because the study was not conducted in an experimentally sound manner. At the very least, there was no control experiment to test if the hoax research would be accepted for publication by closed-access journals.

There are several myths and misconceptions about open-access publishing, including (but not limited to):

Misconception Number One: Open-access journals are of inherently lower quality. This is not true in all disciplines, and there have been studies to judge the quality of open-access journals. (See this discussion on the future of open-access publishing.) The quality of a journal is a function of the quality of its editorial team and peer reviewers, and how they respond to authors’ manuscripts. (See this advice on judging the quality of an open-access journal). The quality of a published article has nothing to do with whether it

will be open or closed access. Most quality crises in academic publishing stem from peer-review, rather than whether the journal is open or closed.

Misconception Number Two: Open-access journals require authors to pay, and this in turn automatically implies lower quality, as people pay their way to get published. This is untrue because, first, many open access journals do not require author payment; and second, some closed-access journals also require author payment. Therefore, payment is not synonymous with open access. A third point to be made is that, in most cases, according to this article about the myths of open access, the fees are not paid by authors, but by their institutions or funders. This means that underfunded authors or institutions are at a disadvantage. Beware, however, of this scenario, which I heard has occurred: A journal rejects an author’s submission, only to offer to publish it in an open-access journal for a fee. This seems to be a win-win for the publisher, as they maintain a quality difference between the paid and the open access journals, and they get paid for doing so. Such a situation is also a lose-lose for the author, who gets a lower quality article published in a lower quality journal and loses some money doing so.

Misconception Number Three: The only way to achieve open access is to publish via an open-access journal (what is sometimes called the “gold” route). In fact, there is also a “green” route, which is to publish with a regular closed-access journal (and therefore not compromise your freedom to publish wherever you choose, with the best journals out there), but then to get permission to archive a version of one’s manuscript in an institutional or personal open access repository, often after an agreed-upon embargo of a few months or years. Many journals offer this automatically.

A second blog will be published shortly that will look at whether Arab researchers should care about this debate.

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