Open access: six myths to put to rest

Open access to research is still held back by misunderstandings repeated by people who should know better, says reader

Open access to academic research has never been a hotter topic. But it’s still held back by myths and misunderstandings repeated by people who should know better. The good news is that open access has been successful enough to attract comment from beyond its circle of pioneers and experts. The bad news is that a disappointing number of policy-makers, journalists and academics opine in public without doing their homework.

opening access research

It’s time to unlock and put to rest the myths surrounding open access research, says reader

Here, at the start of the sixth global Open Access Week, are the six most common and harmful misunderstandings about open access:

1) The only way to provide open access to peer-reviewed journal articles is to publish in open access journals

Open access delivered by journals is called “gold” open access and open access delivered by repositories is called “green” open access. The myth asserts that all open access is gold , even for peer-reviewed articles. It has been false since the birth of open access, and yet it remains a tenacious and widespread misconception. Today most open access in medicine and biomedicine is gold, but in every other field it’s mostly green.

The myth is due in part to the relative novelty of the green model. Most academics understand open access journals, more or less, because they understand journals. (I say “more or less” because the common understanding of open access journals is itself myth-ridden; more below.) By contrast, repositories are comparatively new in the scholarly landscape, making them easy to overlook or underestimate. Digital research repositories arose in the digital era, while peer-reviewed journals arose in the year that Isaac Newton earned his bachelor’s degree.

However, this excuse is wearing thin. Today the Registry of Open Access Repositories (ROAR) lists more than 250 subject-based open access repositories and more than 2,300 institutional open access repositories. The Cornell University arXiv for physics and mathematics is more than 20 years old – ancient in internet time. Several open access repositories, including arXiv, the Social Science Research Network (SSRN), andPubMed Central (PMC), dominate their respective subject fields.

Nearly every open access policy at a university or funding agency is a green policy, that is, a policy requiring deposit in an open access repository rather than submission to open access journals. Although open access repositories were novel a couple of decades ago, there’s no excuse for digital scholars not to know that they exist, that they differ from journals, and that they are effective options for the lawful distribution of articles published in peer-reviewed journals.

2) All or most open access journals charge publication fees

Charging publication fees (sometimes called author fees or article processing charges) is the best-known business model for open access journals, but it’s far far from the most common. We’ve known since 2006that most peer-reviewed open access journals charge no fees at all. Earlier this year the Directory of Open Access Journals (DOAJ) began providing its own tallies of open access journals that do and don’t charge fees. As of this week, the DOAJ reports that more than two-thirds (67%)of all peer-reviewed open access journals charge no fees.

We’ve also known since 2006 that most (75%) conventional or non-open access journals do charge author-side fees, on top of reader-side subscription fees. This matters because a close cousin to myth number two is the assumption that author-side fees corrupt peer review. If true, then this corruption affects the majority of conventional journals and only a minority of open access journals.

3) Most author-side fees are paid by the authors themselves

According to the comprehensive Study of Open Access Publishing (SOAP), when researchers publish in fee-based open access journals, the fees are paid by funders (59%) or by universities (24%). Only 12% of the time are they paid by authors out of pocket. This is a good reason to stop using the term “author fees” for publication fees, or the term “author pays” for the fee-based business model.

Scholars who make their work green open access rather than gold never pay a fee to do so. Even when they choose the gold route, only 33% of peer-reviewed open access journals charge author-side fees. It follows that only 4% of authors who publish in open access journals (12% of 33%) pay fees out of pocket. At the same time, about 50% of articles published in peer-reviewed open access journals are published in fee-based journals. If we count by article rather than by journal, then only 6% of authors who publish in open access journals (12% of 50%) pay fees out of pocket.

4) Publishing in a conventional journal closes the door on making the same work open access

Most conventional publishers give standing permission for author-initiated green open access. Many of the others will give permission on request. For authors unsure of a publisher’s position, check out the Sherpa RoMEO database of publisher policies, read the publishing contract, or ask an editor. It’s always worth asking, if only to register demand and show rising expectations.

Because this permission comes from publishers themselves, it makes green open access lawful even when authors have transferred all relevant rights to publishers. However, the permission needn’t come from publishers. Authors may retain relevant rights, on their own, throughauthor addenda (lawyer-drafted contract modifications), or through open access policies at their funding agency or employer. For example, since 2005 the Wellcome Trust has had a policy requiring Wellcome-funded researchers to retain the right to authorise open access, if the publisher doesn’t already permit or provide open access. The US National Institutions of Health (NIH) has had a similar policy since 2008. A new bill in Germany would allow authors to provide green open access to articles arising from publicly-funded research, regardless of their publishing contracts.

On the university side, departments in more than 40 universities around the world have adopted policies, inspired by those developed at Harvard, in which faculty grant their institution non-exclusive rights to make their future articles open access. Rights-retention policies like these assure that faculty may make their work open access even when they publish in a non-open access journal, even when the non-open access journal does not give standing permission for green open access, and even when faculty members have not negotiated special access terms or permissions with their publishers.

Bottom line: when the best journal in your field is not open access, and you’re good enough to be published there, then you can publish there and still make your peer-reviewed text open access through a repository.

5) Open access journals are intrinsically low in quality

As early as 2004, Thomson Scientific found that in every field of the sciences “there was at least one open access title that ranked at or near the top of its field” in citation impact. Of course the number of high-quality and high-impact open access journals has only grown since then. It’s not surprising that open access journals can be first-rate: the quality of a scholarly journal is a function of its authors, editors, and referees, not its business model or access policy. Even John Bohannon’s recent sting of the execrable bottom tier of open access publishers vindicated the excellent top tier (though without showing how good the best open access journals can be), and the vindicated publishers are among the largest open access publishers publishing the most open access journals and articles.

6) Open access mandates infringe academic freedom

This is true for gold open access but not for green. But if you believe that all open access is gold, then this myth follows as a lemma. Because only about one-third of peer-reviewed journals are open access, requiring researchers to submit new work to open access journals would severely limit their freedom to submit work to the journals of their choice. By contrast, green open access is compatible with publishing in non-open access journals, which means that green open access mandates can respect author freedom to publish where they please. That is why literally all university open access mandates are green, not gold. It’s also why the green/gold distinction is significant, not fussy, and why myths suppressing recognition of green open access are harmful, not merely false.

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Posted in Journal Selection, Open access, Peer-reviewed Journal, Science

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