As a possible alternative to traditional scientific, technical and medical (STM) journal publishing, open access journals are trying to develop a successful publishing model that abolishes or circumvents subscription fees to the reader. The concept of open access publishing is sometimes confused because there are two open access variants:

  • The Open Access Gold Route—This business model eliminates subscription fees to the reader. As it relies on the author, or the author’s institution, to pay for the article to be produced, the articles are released to the reader free of charge.
  • The Open Access Green Route—This business model uses a traditional model of subscription fees to the reader in which the publisher covers the cost of production through reader subscription. As well as traditional print and online publishing of the article, the final, pre-print version of the article is released to the author for his or her distribution, usually online, free of charge. Elsevier has been using the Open Access Green Route with its authors since June 2004.

Studying open access

Elsevier monitors market trends in publishing and keeps editors informed as the industry shifts and changes. We spoke to Andrew Plume, Publishing Information Manager at Elsevier, about his study of open access journals, Characteristics of Open Access Journals, completed in August 2005 (Characteristics of Open Access Journals.pdf could be linked here). “The goal of the study,” explains Plume, “is to characterize documented open access, peer-reviewed journals and their publishers to better understand their history, their current standing, and their long-term stability and viability.” The study used Ulrich’s Periodical Directory, an active, long-established and respected serials indexer, and the University of Lund’s Directory of Open Access Journals (DOAJ) for its enquiry. The DOAJ was launched in 2003 and is currently the largest directory of its kind with 1,525 active journals (at the time of the study). It aims to be a one-stop shop for full-text, quality-controlled, open access, scientific and scholarly journals in all subjects and languages.

The underlying idea of open access publishing, giving access to journal articles, is highly desirable. “In the UK, Western Europe, and North America, 99% of the research community has access to journal articles on ScienceDirect,” says Plume, “and, worldwide, we estimate that 90% of the academic community has access to the journal articles they need.” A sustainable open access publishing model could be a great opportunity for readers, but when they already have access to journal articles, there does not seem to be a pressing need for it. “More compelling,” adds Plume, “is that the Open Access Gold Route model penalizes prolific authors and their institutes.”

It is the serials crisis that has powered, at least in part, the drive to open access journals. As research funding has increased, library funding has not increased at the same rate to allow libraries to keep abreast of scholarly activity. The intersection of the serials crisis with the increased availability of the Internet seems, therefore, logical. There is, as well, a disconnect between what researchers see, that articles are available on their PC, and what researchers believe, that those articles are published in an open access journal. The fact is that their institution is paying for that access via subscription in almost every case. In the developing world, subscription fees are often waived through programs like  HINARI and  AGORA
In other studies, authors have been polled to discover the amount they are willing to pay to have an article published. Most do not want to pay anything, but those who are willing to pay limit their willingness to US$500. The actual cost of publishing is US$3000-4000 per article. None of the Open Access Gold Route journals are charging authors the actual rate. Instead, they are relying on subsidy of one form or another to float their open access publishing efforts.

Survey results

Of the active, verifiable open access journals in the initial survey group, a significant number (around 30%) are not peer reviewed. A lack of rigorous peer review coupled with an author-pays business model is an alarming prospect for journals that identify themselves with the scientific record. In addition, there are very few large publishers actually launching open access journals. Most open access journal publishers are societies or institutes and have only one journal in production. The exceptions to this are the Public Library of Science (PLoS, started in 2001 with a US$9 million research grant), Internet Scientific Publications (publishing 8% of the active, peer-reviewed journals in the DOAJ), and BioMed Central (with 15%). “BioMed Central, in particular, has done a very professional job in their open access journals. What’s more, they have shifted to subscription,” explains Plume. “In 2001, BioMed Central began to charge authors to be published. Later, they established an institution subscription to cover publications from the subscribing institution. This shift in their business model allows BioMed Central to sustain their journals and support their archive.”

When the author’s institution pays for the publishing experience rather than the author directly, it ties the author’s production of scholarly material to the politics of the institution. Moreover, since institutions then consume as well as produce articles, this is merely the traditional subscription model under a different name.

Although Elsevier currently uses the Open Access Green Route (where the author can distribute a final, pre-print article), the survey found no evidence that the Open Access Gold Route (where the author pays to be published) is viable for an established publisher with many journals and an important archive. Explains Plume, “Since the 1980s, open access journals have enjoyed a market perception that their numbers are climbing. The survey discovered that the number of open access journal launches each year did increase from 1994 to 2001. For example, in 2001, more than 80 journals launched as open access journals. It is now holding steady at around 60 per year. These recent figures have been heavily influenced by BioMed Central. From 2002 to 2004, however, there has been a strong downturn in the number of journals switching from a traditional subscription model to the open access journal model. It is being realized that the business model is unsustainable and that readers and authors do not necessarily want an author-pays model or any disruption to the archive.”

Some key issues that might disrupt enthusiasm for open access publishing can also be considered:

  • Issues of version control—Even though it is the final, pre-print version of the article that is released to the author for distribution free of charge in the Open Access Green Route, it is difficult to distinguish between that version of the article and drafts or re-submissions that have slipped into circulation, especially online. “Since we use the Open Access Green Route, this is already an issue that Elsevier encounters and is trying to find solutions for,” says Plume.
  • Errata management and the tracking of corrections—In the traditional model, errata and corrections are tracked within journals from issue to issue. In both of the open access publishing models, there is no provision for errata management and corrections tracking.
  • Erosion of the quality of peer review—Author payment for publication is a form of vanity publishing and introduces a conflict of interest between authors, editors, and publishers. The weakening of peer review under the revenue pressures of an author-pays model strikes at the heart of the tenets of scholarly communication.
  • Archive maintenance—In the Open Access Gold Route there is no provision for maintenance of the scientific record over time. So, if submissions to an open access journal fall, undermining its revenue base, there is no provision for its archive.

An open access journal business model that has recently come onto the publishing world’s radar is the possibility of click-through advertising revenue on each online page. It is transforming other areas of online publishing, albeit commercial sites and informal sites such as weblogs (blogs). “Change is the only constant in the scientific publishing landscape,” Plume says. “Evolution does not stop. If it will lead to better business models for publishing, click-through advertising revenue is worth keeping in mind.”

In the search for a fresh approach to open access, theorists sometimes ignore the fact that there is more to publishing the scientific record than releasing an article. The process requires several interconnecting steps: submission, peer review, edit and correction, release, distribution, errata and version control, archive, and maintenance. Each of these steps engender costs that must be met over the short-term and, importantly, over the long-term. If open access journals are able to develop a sustainable business model, it could be a great opportunity for the community. But someone, traditionally the reader, always has to pay.

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