Today’s blog post comes courtesy of Mark Purvis of IOP Publishing.
Open access is a relatively new approach to scholarly communication. The premise is simple: knowledge can advance more quickly if it can be shared without barriers. Why then have we not embraced the concept of open science more enthusiastically? Why is there such scepticism about open access, fuelled by misconceptions and myths? This guest blog post from Mark Purvis looks at a few popular misconceptions about open access and aims to set the record straight.
Myth: Open Access journals are of a lower quality than subscription ones
There are many ways to define the quality of a journal but in my mind, the quality of a journal is determined by the three things: (1) the quality of the work submitted to the journal, (2) the quality of peer review and (3) the quality of the copy editing and typesetting. None of these is affected by whether a journal is open access or not. There are, without doubt, many open access journals that are of low quality and seek to capitalise on an author’s desire to get published. You can find a blog and list dedicated to such “predatory journals” here. But there are many excellent open access journals and many terrible subscription access journals. There is nothing intrinsic in the open access business model that compromises quality.
Some like to point a finger at the so-called megajournals . These journals operate a distinct approach to peer review, which has been interpreted by some as being of lower quality. These journals select articles based on an objective assessment of the scientific rigour of the research rather than a subjective assessment of significance or importance. I don’t agree this necessarily implies lower quality. It removes bias against negative results and helps prevent repetition of failed experiments. Most of these megajournals are open access but the question of their quality is nothing to do with the method of access. In fact there are many subscription journals that operate equally or less selective peer review processes (often without advertising the fact).
Myth: Open Access encourages plagiarism
Victim blaming is a recurring theme amongst populist commentators on modern life. We are told that leaving doors unlocked invites burglars to enter our homes and steal our precious goods. Nonsense! Unethical behaviour is not the fault of the victims. It occurs because morally corrupt individuals try to exploit the endeavours of others to benefit themselves. The real encouragement to plagiarise comes from a scholarly reward system that measures academic achievement based on numbers of publications, rather than the quality of research done. Plagiarisers don’t steal the work of others because it is easy to access the content. They do so because they want to cheat the system.
In practice, I would suggest that open access might actually discourage plagiarism, because it makes such misconduct much easier to detect.
Myth: The general public won’t understand my research
My first reaction when hearing this is to wish the researcher good luck getting the general public to fund that research! In practice, the real reason for publishing on an open access basis is not informing the general public. It is removing potential barriers to knowledge sharing and collaboration. If the general public wants to read your research, great, but if a fellow scholar wants to read your work and collaborate on moving it forward, so much the better!
I still think authors should write with expectation that a member of the general public may want to read their work, however challenging that may be in technical fields. I’ve worked on journals publishing research in some of the most esoteric areas of theoretical physics, where the number of specialists around the world who truly understand a paper can probably be counted in single figures. That doesn’t excuse the authors from the responsibility for setting their work in context and making it as accessible as possible. The best authors achieve that regardless of the complexity of the subject.
Myth: Open access adds to the author’s workload
This is a harder myth to bust. Open access can add to the author’s workload. It also adds to the workload for librarians, funders and publishers. However it is achieved, open access requires a change from the well-oiled workflows that have been established through the twentieth century. But it is important to remember that open access is a new phenomenon. The concept has only been around for twenty years, and meaningful take up has only come in the last five years or so.
New funding streams have had to be established, new staff have been hired in libraries and research offices; committees have spent months consulting and drafting policies at national and institutional levels; repositories have been built; and publishers have changed their submission systems and introduced new charging services to collect OA fees.
Change comes at a cost but the highest cost comes during the change. In the medium term, as open access becomes a normalised part of the scholarly communications process, the additional workload will disappear. Publishers are already working hard with librarians to modify workflows and eliminate unnecessary steps for authors. Where possible, publishers want to shift the responsibility for payment away from authors and back into the hands of the institutions and funders issuing open access mandates.
Finally, we must remember that any extra workload has an immediate payback in terms of easier access to research and easier collaboration. Open access is good for authors too!
Myth: Open access costs too much
The fees charged for open access publishing vary a great deal from nothing to several thousand pounds. Why is there such a difference? Ostensibly, open access charges are set at a level that will enable all the costs of running journal to be met. Those costs vary from journal to journal and depend on a wide range of parameters: the number of staff working on a journal, the IT infrastructure required to run the journal, the production and typesetting services offered and the rent of the premises etc. To calculate the article fee, add all those up and divide by the number of accepted papers. (Note, for highly selective journals the costs per article are likely to be higher than those for a less selective journal because the accepted articles have to cover the costs of processing all the rejected articles as well.)
I chose the word ostensibly with care because it is extremely rare for revenue to balance costs exactly in any enterprise. A good number of journals operate at a loss. This happens for three main reasons: (1) incompetence, (2) investment (with the aim of making a profit at some stage in the future), or (3) charitable subsidy (including volunteer labour). Because open access is a relatively new phenomenon, many purely open access journals fall into category 2. So, while fees may appear to be low today as a journal seeks to attract authors and build market share, at some stage the fees will have to rise to balance the books. Those in category 3 may also face the prospect of higher fees in the future if a charitable subsidy is reduced or voluntary labour is withdrawn.
A sustainable business model requires the journal to make a surplus of income over costs. The size of that surplus will depend on the objectives of the publisher. Many society publishers, like IOP Publishing, use any surplus to support the activities of the parent society to promote the development of their subject area and support education, inclusion and outreach. Some publishers, like Elsevier for example, are commercial organisations that reinvest some of their surplus in improving the business and return any remaining profit to their investors in the form of a dividend. Other publishers, like PLoS, use the surplus achieved on one journal to subsidise other loss-making journals.
Now the good news. Not everyone has to pay the full quoted article charge for open access. First of all, there is a good chance your institution or funder will pay it for you. (RCUK has ear-marked £14 million to support its open access policy in the UK this year.) Secondly, you may be eligible to a reduced rate through membership of a learned society or through a deal your library has negotiated. Some publishers (including IOP Publishing) offer authors discounts in recognition of their work in peer reviewing manuscripts or serving on editorial boards. If you are concerned about where to find the funds ask your librarian or your publisher. We’re both here to help.
Mark Purvis is Open Access Publisher at IOP Publishing, the publishing arm of the Institute of Physics.