Open Access benefits researchers, institutions, nations and society as a whole. For researchers, it brings increased visibility, usage and impact for their work. Institutions enjoy the same benefits in aggregated form. There is growing evidence to show that countries also benefit because Open Access increases the impact of the research in which they invest public money (see Houghton and Sheehan’s study on the economic impact of enhanced access to research findings) and therefore there is a better return on investment. Society as a whole benefits because research is more efficient and more effective, delivering better and faster outcomes for us all.
Open Access is the alternative to Closed Access (or Subscription Access or Toll Access). Traditionally, journals have been sold on subscription to libraries. In the age of print-on-paper this was the only model available that enabled publishers to disseminate journals and recoup the cost. Unfortunately, this meant that only researchers in institutions that could afford to pay the subscription charges were able to read journal articles. Even wealthy universities could only afford a proportion of the world’s research literature. For institutions in poorer countries this proportion is tiny or even non-existent. At the beginning of this millennium, more than half the research-based institutions in the poorest countries had no current journal subscriptions and over 20% had an average of two subscriptions.
Now, in the age of the World Wide Web, it is possible for research findings to be disseminated free of charge to anyone who wishes to read them. Those with access to the journals in their libraries will access the articles as before – though some people say that it is actually quicker and easier to access Open Access copies through a search engine (one or two clicks) than to access the published article in a journal through their library website (which normally takes several steps). Those who do not have the journals they want in their library can use Google or other Web search engines to track down the Open Access literature in institutional and subject repositories.
Supporters of Open Access to scientific literature often portray it as the definitive and inevitable model for scientific publishing, but it is far from being the last word on new modes of access. In reality, stakeholders in scientific publishing are in the midst of adjusting to the revolutionary new possibilities offered by the Web and the online journal article for scholarly communication.
Proponents of a move to open access argue that this will benefit science and society in general. Part of the remit of not-for-profit organizations which fund research may be the full dissemination of results. But even where research is publicly-funded, taxes are generally not paid so that taxpayers can access research results, but rather so that society can benefit from the results of that research; in the form of new medical treatments, for example. Publishers claim that 90% of potential readers can access 90% of all available content through national or research libraries, and while this may not be as easy as accessing an article online directly it is certainly possible.
Funding for scientific research also comes from a variety of sources – in some countries such as Australia and New Zealand around 80% of R&D funding comes from the public purse, while in Japan and Switzerland only about 10% is government-funded. It is therefore not necessarily the case that taxpayers fund most scientific research.
Another criticism of open access is that payment for publication could create conflicts of interest and have a negative impact on the perceived neutrality of peer review, as there would be a financial incentive for journals to publish more articles. The importance of the role of peer review does not diminish under an Open Access model, and structures need to be in place to ensure that peer reviewers are not unduly influenced by the needs of their publishers.
In some ways though this argument can apply as much to the current subscription-based system as publishers often justify price increases on the grounds of an increase in the number of journal articles published. This suggests that there are financial advantages for both Open Access and subscription-based publishers in publishing more articles.
Like everything in life, open access has its good and bad sides. Summarized here is a brief rundown of some of the positive and negative aspects of publishing open access.
Advantage 1: Free for all
The core idea of open access is the basis of its key advantage—articles are freely available for anyone who wishes to read them. For readers and libraries, the benefits of not having to pay for an individual article or journal subscription are obvious. And for those that believe that publically funded research should be freely available to all, mandates to make the outcomes of these funding programs free to the public are now becoming the norm. Free access to scientific knowledge, information and data strengthens the basis for transfer (education), development (research) and valorization of knowledge.
Disadvantage 1: Publication fees
While the end user doesn’t have to pay to read an open access article, someone has to pay for the costs of publication. Often, it is the responsibility of the author—perhaps through their employer or a research grant—to cover these costs. In times of austerity and funding cuts, this can discourage researchers from going open access.
Advantage 2: Increased readership
For authors, publishing open access rather than behind a paywall can help open up their research to a wider audience. Open Access articles are published sooner than articles in non-Open Access journals and Open Access articles reach broader audiences than articles in non-Open Access journals. In an era where the number of articles being published is skyrocketing, open access can help an article to be more discoverable online. And ultimately, an increased number of readers can convert into an increased number of citations for the author. Open Access enhances visibility and impact of one’s own work as Open Access articles are downloaded and cited more frequently than articles from non-Open Access journals.
Disadvantage 2: Lack of quality control
Quality Open Access journals do not yet have the same established reputation as traditional journals. While not a problem for reputable publishers, some argue that open access models incentivize journals to publish more articles. Predatory Open Access journals try to mislead and cheat authors. Journals have to cover their costs and when a large portion of their revenue comes from publication fees, they may be encouraged to publish more articles, with a negative impact on overall quality.
Advantage 3: Access for researchers in developing countries
The lack of access to subscription-based journals is a commonly cited problem for researchers in low-income countries. Open access can help provide scientists in such countries with the opportunity to participate in the international research community, with some open access journals even offering discounted or waived publication fees for papers from low-income countries. Developing countries and small or specialized research institutions and corporations have access to all Open Access articles.
Disadvantage 3: Sustainability
Open Access publishing is as yet not cheaper than the current costs of licences, and therefore may be a costly affair. Some argue that traditional paid access models ensure publishers are adequately compensated for the substantial role they play. Whether open access models can sustainably support the research publication infrastructure in the long term remains to be seen.