The Open Access Debate Continues

The New England Journal of Medicine has just published four articles that comment on the issue of “open access”. I will list these four articles and briefly comment on the two papers which are critical of open access publishing.

1. The Downside of Open-Access Publishing by Charlotte Haug

This article discusses potential problems associated with open access publishing but also conflates the issue of open access with the issue of inadequate peer review, as can be seen in this excerpt:

Of course, the terms “international,” “scientific,” “peer-reviewed,” “journal,” “article,” “editor,” and “publisher” do not have copyrighted or patented definitions and can have varied meanings, especially in the Internet age. Must an article be different from a submitted paper? Isn’t everything published online automatically international? Is there anything wrong with a situation in which the editor and publisher are just one person who has set up a website where researchers can submit their papers and pay a fee to have them laid out in a professional way and made available to all interested parties? Isn’t it a good thing that this vast number of new publishers and journals will make it possible to get all research — whatever its quality level — into the public domain? Perhaps. But describing a simple online-posting service as “an international, scientific, peer-reviewed journal” leads authors and readers to believe that they are submitting to or reading something they aren’t.

One central flaw of this argument is that open access does not necessarily mean lack of peer review, as previously discussed.

2. Open but Not Free — Publishing in the 21st Century by Martin Frank

The article by Martin Frank tries to make the case that “open access” publishing itself costs quite a bit of money and that these funds could be better used for research purposes. He distinguishes between “gold open access”, where published articles are immediately available upon publication to the general public without any fees for the readers and “green open access”, which gives free access to the public after an initial period of pay-for-access. With green open access, the publisher generates some revenue during this initial period, whereas in “gold open access” publishing, the researchers usually pay a fee that covers the publication charges so that readers do not have to pay anything.

One section of the article especially caught my eye:

…..assuming that all articles had to be published with gold open access, Harvard Medical School would have to pay $13.5 million (at $1,350 per article) to publish the 10,000 articles authored by its faculty in 2010 — considerably more than the $3.75 million that was in its serials-acquisition budget that year. Research-intensive institutions will thus bear the burden of funding free access to the research literature, subsidizing access for less-research-intensive institutions, including pharmaceutical companies.

This calculation assumes that current pay-for-access journals do not charge researchers for the publication of their articles. I have previously addressed this issue, citing a specific example which shows that pay-for-access journals often charge the researchers several hundred dollars to publish an article. If researchers use color figures, the charges can run up to $2000 or $3000 per manuscript. These author fees are in addition to the fees that publishers of pay-for-access journals charge the readers. Martin Frank’s calculation ignores the author fees that Harvard researchers might be currently paying to publish in pay-for-access journals.

He also mentions the pharmaceutical companies as potential beneficiaries but fails to include other important beneficiaries:

1) Members of the general public, whose taxes paid for most of the biomedical research conducted in the United States and who should thus have a right to access the results of this publicly funded research

2) Individuals in countries who cannot afford the fees to read papers published in pay-for-access journals.

3. Creative Commons and the Openness of Open Access by Michael Carroll

4. For the Sake of Inquiry and Knowledge — The Inevitability of Open Access by Ann Wolpert



6 thoughts on “The Open Access Debate Continues

  1. Khalil A. Cassimally

    Regarding the second article you mention, my main criticism—based on your analysis and the section you’ve reproduced in the blog post—is the writer’s preposterous suggestion that the money used to publish open access papers could instead be used for research.

    It appears that the writer views money spent to make a paper OA is a waste. What the writer fails to realise is that paying to publish an OA paper is an investment and not a waste. OA papers typically get more eyeballs which may lead to more academic opportunities (collaborations, etc), industry applications and general awareness from the public. Those benefits may very well contribute to more funding for scientific research.

    A second flaw in this argument that spending more for OA papers is not money well-spent is that not all portion of funding ever has or will go into the actual research. Money is spent on lab refurbishing, travel grants and numerous strictly non-scientific endeavours. Those nonetheless are necessities. To me, OA publishing is a necessity and planning for its cost will become ubiquitous sooner rather than later.


    1. Int

      Yeah, thank goodness everyone in every discipline has the ready cash for this ‘necessity’.

      It’s like Gold OA advocates live in a world in which nothing is ever done that isn’t directly linked to dollars. Sometimes people do research pretty well for free. Because they want to know the answer. Odd, I know.


      1. Khalil A. Cassimally

        Int, You make a very good point. But of course, one is very well able to put all of one’s results OA using such databases as Arxiv or figshare and the likes… If ones aim is purely to promulgate one’s findings, I don’t think it’s any problem to bypass publishers entirely and just put everything online for free.


  2. Khalil, I completely agree with you. I would go even further and ask the question “Isn’t the publication and communication of research part of research itself?” The second article somehow creates a dichotomy between funds used for research (I think the author sees this as money used for conducting experiments) and funds used for publication. In my view, publication and communication of scientific findings is part of research. What is the benefit of obtaining scientific data, if they are not shared with the whole scientific community?


    1. … and the public. I’d argue that publication and communication – and discussion – of scientific findings is part of research. (Though I’ve currently cause to be concerned that the latter doesn’t always necessarily follow…)


  3. Pingback: [BLOCKED BY STBV] #SciLogs Weekly Roundup: Submerged Continent, Open Access Debate, Libel Reform, Dogs And DNA, Algae In The Arctic, 3D Bioprinter, Linkfest Of Curiosities | Community Blog

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