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