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Open access comes in many shades

by Bibiana Campos Seijo
June 19, 2017 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 95, Issue 25

It’s the time of year when impact factors are announced. Impact factors measure the frequency with which the average article in a particular journal has been cited in a certain time period and are often used to judge the relative relevance of a journal in its field. Editors and their publishers wait with bated breath to receive the latest figures about their journals and then get busy comparing them against last year’s numbers and against those of competitors at the individual journal and portfolio level.

For some time, scientists have been questioning the relevance of measures such as impact factors. In terms of topics of discussion in the scientific community in relation to publishing, impact factors are up there with piracy and open access. There has been plenty of vibrant discussion on these issues for a while—and you’ll be hearing a lot about impact factors over the next few weeks. So I’d like to focus on open access not only because it is a topic on which there is still a lot of controversy and the scientific community remains deeply divided, but also because I just discovered a couple of new “shades” of open access.

When it comes to open access, anyone with a bit of common sense would agree that in principle it is a good thing. Unlike traditional academic journals, which require readers to pay, open access titles are free to all. Especially when we are talking about government-funded research, it makes sense that results are made broadly available. But open access journals still have editing and production costs associated with them.

So who’s going to cover those costs? There are several options here. I was well aware of gold and green open access, but it wasn’t until very recently that I learned there are diamond and black versions, too.

In gold open access, the costs—article processing fees, or APCs—are typically paid by the researchers’ funding institutions when their papers are accepted for publication. Gold seems to have taken root as the most viable model, but one obvious drawback is that paying for publication means that researchers could be discriminated against on the basis of their ability to pay. To help mitigate this, publishers are offering discounts for researchers based in countries with developing economies.

In green open access, authors upload the most up-to-date version of a manuscript that has been submitted to a subscription publisher after peer review to digital repositories or open online archives, which then make the content freely available. Many academic libraries now maintain such repositories for their faculty and students. One of the obvious problems is long-term digital preservation of content.

Another variety of open access is diamond. It is a form of gold open access that does not require the author to pay APCs. Journals that operate under a diamond model must have some kind of endowment to replace revenues from subscriptions. Some argue that societies and associations are perhaps best placed to publish these journals because societies are mission driven and thus the journal could operate as a society program and be removed from the journal subscription market.

The last variety of open access is black, also known as guerrilla open access. This term is used to describe what continues to be an illegal practice, which is to misappropriate credentials, use them to download manuscripts from behind journal paywalls, and then make that content accessible for free. Guerrilla seems a far more appropriate label than black. In fact, I wouldn’t class it as open access at all—it is a fraudulent and illegal means of making content freely available, not a legitimate mechanism for disseminating research results. The end (free content for everyone) may be desirable, but the means (theft of intellectual property and copyright violation) are obviously wrong.

Scientific publishing is a fascinating industry that is in a constant state of flux, much of which is driven by technology and the ever-changing research funding landscape. What is your shade of open access?

Views expressed are those of the author and not necessarily those of ACS.


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