January 6, 2016

Open Access - the better way of academic publishing?

This blog post outlines some of the main deficiencies in the academic publishing system as seen by the Open Access advocates and the promises of the alternative vision likewise. As we shall see, some of the issues might turn out to present the bane and the boon at the same time.

The birth

The hour of birth of what was then coined “Open Access” in the early years of this millennium seemed to be a somewhat natural response to the prevailing situation in academic publishing. Two developments of that time are often seen as main influencing factors paving the way for a novel proposal. Firstly, with the emergence and adoption of digital technologies in the 1970s it became possible to “publish” and disseminate scholarly literature electronically saving significant amounts of time and costs as the postal delivery of authors' manuscripts and its reviews, accompanying written communication as well as the final products in the form of printed journal issues could be dropped. Secondly, academic journal publishers have been already increasing subscription prices at a substantial rate in conflict with the shrinking budgets of academic libraries, their main
subscribers. These circumstances are widely referred to in the library and information professionals community as the so-called “serials crisis” which culminated in the 1990s.

In the light of these events, a small group of activists has gathered in Budapest for a meeting in late 2001 and proposed a revolutionary vision for the future of academic publishing known under the name of the Budapest Open Access Initiative (BOAI):
An old tradition and a new technology have converged to make possible an unprecedented public good. The old tradition is the willingness of scientists and scholars to publish the fruits of their research in scholarly journals without payment, for the sake of inquiry and knowledge. The new technology is the internet. The public good they make possible is the world-wide electronic distribution of the peer-reviewed journal literature and completely free and unrestricted access to it by all scientists, scholars, teachers, students, and other curious minds.

The promise(s)

Here, a particular technological solution was proposed for a particular problem. However, and as following one and a half of decades have clearly shown, improving 'traditional forms of dissemination' of the scholarly literature and, ultimately, human knowledge encompasses far more issues than merely providing technical infrastructure for its implementation. The socio-economical and organisational dimensions of the scientific system, largely ignored in the original BOAI declaration, might well account for the state where Open Access – despite significant gains in the recent years – is not yet the modus operandi in publishing scholarly research. But will it ever be? Many actors in 'the publishing game' (Cameron Neylon) – researchers, librarians, funders, university administrators, science policymakers and indeed publishers themselves – would say 'yes'. This argument would be usually backed up by an overview of rising numbers in terms of Open Access journals, articles, repositories, policies, publication funds or institutional offices.

Benefits of Open Access as envisaged by Kingsley and Brown
(Source: Australasian Open Access Support Group, AOASG)

The issues

Some publicly performed disputes catching the attention of the mass media such as the currently very prominent case in the Netherlands between the Dutch University Association (VSNU) and Elsevier, one of the major academic publishers worldwide, have been even considered 'a game changer' with a potential to disrupt the conventional system. But if Open Access is indeed the magic bullet to all the problems and insufficiencies in the current working of academic publishing why do such 'battles' have ever to take place? In the following chapters I will try to outline some of the issues behind the deficiency and promise narratives surrounding related debates.

The Open Access 'multiple'
If Open Access would be the one and only answer to 'paywalls' restricting humanity's access to the treasures of scientific knowledge or university libraries buying back the fruits of research of their own scholars, no one would need to be convinced of its good and every scholarly paper would be freely available online. However, this is particularly the point where the difficulties begin as there is no one Open Access model fitting all shapes and sizes (as well as no one homogeneous humanity or forms of knowledge). There are different species and sub-species of Open Access publishing ranging from Green, Gold, Hybrid, Diamond, Platinum, Gratis, Libre etc. Even more, different licensing options, funding mandates and embargo periods apply making it an intricate affair to anyone not working with related issues on a daily basis. Thus, it is not surprising that for some scholars the Open Access debate has shifted from the 'liberation' and 'democratisation' discourses to the bureaucracy and regulatory compliance. Different preferences or even camps do exist among Open Access advocates, too. Thus, imposing Open Access as a uniform vision then sounds at least odd.

Academic freedom
Furthermore and at least in some countries, coupling Open Access mandates to funding requirements might be seen as limiting researchers' decisions on where and how to publish their work and ultimately their 'academic freedom'. As a deeply entrenched belief and a tenet in national constitutions (e.g. in German “Die Wissenschaft und ihre Lehre ist frei”), academic freedom is feared to be jeopardised if prescribed by top-down policies. Of course, this view largely ignores the existence of other even more influential factors and incentives, such as reputation of particular publishing venues and its implications for career structures. However, putting ambitious national goals in place in accord with the formula 'in year X, the percentage Y of all scholarly publications must be available in Open Access' can reasonably provoke mixed reactions among those upon whom these objectives are to be executed.

Quality assurance
Another concern with regard to the visions of Open Access is closely related to its implementation itself. Open Access journals and other publishing venues, to put it lightly, usually are not held in high esteem. This issue is related to the circumstance, that newly established journals, technically speaking, need some lead time in order to fulfil certain criteria and hence to be included in indexes or databases that are seen as “gatekeepers” to quality academic publishing (e.g. Directory of Open Access Journals (DOAJ) maintained at at Lund University in Sweden, or Journal Citation Reports reports compiled by Thomson Reuters, that include most prominently data on Journal Impact Factors, JIF). On the other side, the scepticism is fuelled by the rise of so-called “predatory” publishers who are known for aggressive business practices and less rigorous quality checks. Thus, Open Access journals are often misleadingly seen as of “low(er) quality” or equal to non peer-reviewed literature. As JIF represents "a mechanism for allocation of resources", the decision not to choose a journal with a formally lower ranking or reputation seems to be actually comprehensible.

Saving costs
Further on, one of the main arguments in favour of Open Access and at the same time the core deficiency that it aims at combating is to lower the total publishing costs. Many researchers and thus their publications are paid by means of public money, therefore, the outcome of such “investment” is required to be publicly accessible. However, for the reason described above most of research articles are published in conventional subscription journals offering a “hybrid” Open Access option, which means that individual contributions might be “ransomed” and made freely available.* As a consequence, such situation does a disservice to its promise as it is exacerbating the so-called “double dipping” problem and the price spiral and thus inflating the total cost of academic publishing.

The better way?

Thus, as we have seen, promising to combat the deficiencies in the academic publishing system might be a boon and a bane at the same time. Where some issues have been tackled, the problems have not necessarily been solved but rather shifted to other areas or became even worse. There are clearly many transformations in the scholarly communications system going on right now with possible and substantial implications to the academic publishing part. These larger trends include but are not limited to a wave of a number of “open” initiatives ranging from open source software, open government data or massive open online courses. Furthermore, critical voices with regard to the status quo and the power relations between publicly funded institutions and global profit-oriented corporations are becoming louder. We will have to wait and see the course of events in the exciting period of time in the next months and years, and of course to actively make choices and use tools and possibilities already available now to our best.

* For instance, as reported by the Austrian Science Fund (FWF) payments for publications under the
programme "Peer-Reviewed Publications" consisted of 86% of Hybrid Open Access costs in 2013 and 78% in 2014. See Reckling and Rieck (2015): Austrian Science Fund (FWF) Publication Cost Data 2014. figshare.

This blog post was written by Elena Šimukovič, a PhD student at the Department of Science and Technology Studies, University of Vienna. In her PhD thesis Elena investigates expectations on the scientific system that are attached to Open Access academic publishing as well as implications of the proposed large-scale transition from journal subscriptions to Open Access model.


  1. Maybe one of the biggest problems is the lack of transparency in publication and subscription costs

  2. Makes me think about the complexities of the impact of open acess - when consequently established - on how new knowledge / publications would be assessed... and what shift in valueing would take place...

  3. Excellent description of current status. Clearly, the situation is far more complex and goes beyond narrow approaches such as "knowledge must be free!" or "knowledge must be payed!". Subscription costs is one of the many variables... As far as the open access platform does not match similar quality standards and credibility as its competitor, the knowledge market would probably stick with the "expensive ones". Interesting debate so far...

  4. Well done for describing such a complicated situation in an understandable way!

    I find the concept of gatekeepers very interesting - should they be open as well, and if so, will somebody keep an eye on them? Will we end up with lists of approved indexes of approved lists of approved indexes etc.? If not, who will get to decide which groups have the power to ascribe "quality" to scientific knowledge in the future?

  5. Thanks for comments! There is certainly some sort of repositioning of actors and redistribution of power and resources going on. Who are (or will be) the gatekeepers, for which values or how do they claim legitimacy is a very interesting development to observe.

  6. Thank you for this post that should help reflect some of our practices. I fully agree with what you wrote under the geading of quality assurance, but as far as I have been able to get a sensible insight into issues related with prestige related to open accces, it seems as if researchers (across the fields) have robust knowledge on the academic reputation of different channels of deliberation. I, and this is a really personal consideration, would not overrate the problem, if there is one, with predatory publishers and journals from an academic point of view.

  7. Very interesting standpoint and nicely reading from the historical perspective of Open Access. I wonder what might be the strategy for the Open Access initiative in institutions and universities which cannot afford the high subscription costs of the main/popular journals?