The open access (OA) publishing model embodies the spirit of a movement that started back in the early 2000s. This model promised freedom from the stranglehold that the traditional academic publishing model had on their subscribers/authors.
In the traditional model, many publishing houses because of their history and prestige, which was created by high citation volume of the articles published in such journals, had become de rigueur for any aspiring researcher looking to get published. Moreover, this model has been so rigid that often journals get to decide what will be published, and they charge premium subscription fees to individual subscribers and libraries for giving access to individual articles.
Critics of the traditional model continue to complain about the extent to which the deck is stacked in favor of academic journals. At present, content is submitted to them for free, peer-reviewed for free, and then published with some overhead expenses for marketing, administrative, and editorial services, thus leading to a very healthy profit margin.
In this context, one would imagine that in a true publishing revolution, the extent to which libraries and individuals are required to pay to acess articles decreases. In fact, in the OA model, authors are charged a processing fee in order to get their papers published, which is also the case with traditional publishing; however, unlike traditional publishing, under OA, the readers are not charged for reading the study. So, although this model is not exactly transformational, it still provides greater access as there is no subscription cost for the readers.
“Free” is a Relative Concept
Readers clearly benefit from this new arrangement, but at what cost? Authors were certainly frustrated at the sclerotic pace of review and communication from traditional journals, but is OA the only option? Of course, the article processing charges (APCs) are now being paid by institutional funds more often than not, but “open” clearly does not equate to “free,” and under this arrangement, publication will provide a boost to the author’s professional visibility and presumably his or her career. However, many of the issues with traditional publishing continue to persist in OA, e.g., the impact factor of many open access journals is lower than that of traditional journals; therefore, many authors continue to avoid publishing in OA journals as the impact of their research is minimized.
Identifying an alternative source of publication has certainly worked well for authors, but many of the unethical elements of the traditional model have lingered in this alleged solution. In 2013, the Public Library of Science (PLoS) posted a 23% revenue surplus while keeping APCs flat for the year, whereas several of their contemporaries raised APCs by as much as 25%. No doubt there are overheads to be covered, but a 23% surplus would suggest that those APCs are getting prohibitively high and decreases the popularity of OA journals. The practice of leveraging the pressure to “publish or perish” in the name of bringing research to the masses is not as honorable as the OA model first claimed to be. Yes, the excessively high profits of traditional journals have been challenged, and it is the authors who are gaining from this new model.