Why Do Scientists and Aaron Swartz Care So Much About Open Access (III. Solutions?)

19 Feb

This is part III of my 3 part series about Open Access. Read Part I. Read Part II.

With increasing digitization of research publications and improved ability to share information online, we finally have an opportunity to address the problems. With great power comes great responsibility! (wait, I heard of that somewhere before 😛 ). Here I will try to outline the two main approaches, provide basic information for the latest debate, and discuss how the Open Access (OA) movement is more than just making papers public.

The two approaches you might have heard about in the news are the Green OA, and the Gold OA.

With the Green OA, a scientist would submit a paper to an online repository that is open to the public. The paper can still be submitted to a journal for peer review and publication: According to the SHERPA-RoMEO  database developed by the University of Nottingham, 68% of the 1196 journals in its database accept having preprints (pre-reviewed) and/or postprints (post-reviewed) submitted to online repositories. Even though some of the articles in repositories might not have been peer-reviewed, typically there is some process in place to ensure the authors are credible and the papers do not contain significant flaws. Authors do not need to pay for submissions to repositories, and articles are typically available online in a few days, compared to the months typically required for a paper to be reviewed and then published by a publisher.

An example of Green OA repositories is the ArXiv.org (for Physics, Mathematics, Computer Science, Quantitative Biology, Quantitative Finance and Statistics). ArXiv works on a moderator system, in which submissions were moderated by selected scientists approved by a committee. While there is no peer review, ArXiv has become a critical source of information particularly because how quickly scientists can exchange information online – at the time this is published, ArXiv contains 822,196 publicly accessible papers. Lately, Figshare presents itself as an option (or alternative) for those in fields not covered by ArXiv. Financially, these repositories do not generate revenues through the publication process. ArXiv sustains its operation by asking for pledges from 200 institutions with the heaviest usage (at $1500-3000 per institution), and by receiving grants from non-profit organizations (such as the Simons Foundation). Figshare is currently backed by Digital Science, a branch of the Macmillan Publishers Limited (although according to the news release Figshare will maintain its autonomy). The key to successful Green OA is likely to have a handful of key central repositories that everyone submits to, because this will make searching for papers a lot easier, and that might by why ArXiv has been so successful.

With the Gold OA, a scientist would submit a paper to an open access journal, and once the paper is accepted the journal will ask the scientist for an article processing charge (APC, usually ranges from $1 to ~$3000 USD, depending on the journal. UC Berkeley has a selected list of OA journals and their APCs on their Library Collections website). The article processing charge will then be used to support the logistics of making the paper open access, as well as to maintain the peer review system. This money will come from the authors’ own research grants, specific funds set up by their institutions for supporting open access publications, or occasionally personal moneys for smaller article processing charges (but some journals will waive the charge under specific circumstances). Here are a few examples of Gold OA journals: Public Library of Science (PLoS) (online only), BioMed Central (online only), and Sage Open (part of Sage, which publishes journals traditionally as well).

Gold OA journal examples

Gold OA journal examples

The Gold OA model is the one recently adopted by the UK government based on the famous (or infamous?) Finch Report (executive summary). If you are interested, Bo-Christer Björk and David Solomon published many articles analyzing APCs.

Regardless of which open access model it is, SPARC put together an excellent page on different income models that can be adopted for Open Access.

When it comes to Green vs. Gold, there are discussions and debates about which model is better for the scientific community (more specifically, which model institutions or governments should mandate their researchers to follow). Steven Harnad is a major proponent for the green model, while Stuart Shieber supports the adoption of the gold model (although, as Steven clarified in his comment, both of them favour Green Open Access). You can read about the cases they made: Steven Harnad’s “The Argument Against (Premature) Gold OA Support“, Stuart Shieber’s “The argument for gold OA support“. Also check out a good coverage by Times Higher Education.

But is open access simply about making the papers public? For me personally, it is more than that. For the Open Access movement to be really successful, we all need to start changing how we think of scientific prestige. For the past few decades, much of a scientist’s worth has been evaluated through the number of papers published, and through the journals the papers are published in. Each journal, as it stands now, has a number called the impact factor associated with it. Publications in journals with lower impact factors (usually newer, smaller, less popular journals) usually weigh much less than publications in those with higher impact factors, no matter how rigorous the science is (Postscript 1). For a scientist, this can affect anything from jobs, research funding, to awards or fellowships. The reason that some commercial publishers were able to charge high subscription fees without anyone complaining until now is simply because the money was not just to support the publication process, but also to buy and sell the scientific prestige that these journals represent. Is this going to change with OA? According to an analysis on the APCs of Gold OA and Hybrid OA journals by Theo Andrew, Open Scholarship Development Officer at the University of Edinburgh, there is a positive correlation between the APC and a journal’s impact factor (the higher the impact factors, the higher the APCs). While there are indeed costs associated with the publication process, what’s concerning is that there is no transparency to how the APCs are set, resulting in a huge variety in the numbers.

This move toward Open Access will take a while, because it is not just about changing the access model, but also about changing how we see science. If we continue to think that scientists can be evaluated exclusively by numbers and not by the science they do or by the people they inspire, and do not ask for any transparency in the scientific publishing systems, then the financial unfairness to scientists, as I described in Part II of my posts, will  likely happen again (granted, at least we will have open access…), and the OA movement won’t really achieve as much as what it sets out to achieve (Postscript 2).

Postscript 1. If you are interested in reading more about the effects of impact factors, here are a few great articles:

Postscript 2. I originally plan to include a few actions we can take to support to Open Access movement, and my personal take in the Green vs. Gold debate, but this post was getting too long. I will leave my call to actions in another post, and I don’t mind elaborating my point of view  if anyone asks specific questions in the comments section below 🙂

6 Responses to “Why Do Scientists and Aaron Swartz Care So Much About Open Access (III. Solutions?)”

  1. ecogirlcosmoboy February 19, 2013 at 3:02 pm #

    Good summary of the issues and solutions. There are many perspectives on this and it’s a tough Gordian knot to untangle. Hopefully one of those days, an effective sword can be found to cut through this!

    • Terrific T February 19, 2013 at 6:32 pm #

      We are going through the growing pain I guess…I hope too that that one day we will see light at the end of the tunnel!

  2. Artem Kaznatcheev February 19, 2013 at 5:15 pm #

    The problem with the Green approach is that the filtering service of peer review disappears. On parts of ArXiv this is okay, since you can read the titles and (sometimes) abstracts of every paper that comes out on say quant-ph every day. However, for bigger fields this is just unreasonable. A nice alternative is post-publication review or selections like F1000, but even that seems archaic. For me, the standard seems to be following specific authors with Google Scholar alerts, and getting machine curated suggestions for new articles. I would like to see more of this, since that makes the journal something is published in irrelevant.

    • Terrific T February 19, 2013 at 6:12 pm #

      I can see the point of keeping gold OA journals for the purpose of peer review, but how the APCs are set should be transparent (or at least the fee should be reasonable – not just anything between $1-$3000), and that will probably take some time. Because of this I do not fully support mandating the Gold approach yet.

      So far I am not impressed by F1000 – the model was confusing, and it was not until recently (like, yesterday) that they finally made it clear that they are a gold “journal”. Before that they acted a bit like they were a pre-print service and did a review of which other journals are okay with publishing pre-prints (?). PeerJ was launched recently (https://peerj.com/) and it is a pretty interesting take on a combined pre-print/journal model. I think PeerJ has a better model, but we will see.

      btw, talking about Google Scholar alerts (which I am not yet familiar with but probably should – so I hesitate to comment on it), you might be interested in this – and you should recognized the person who wrote it (http://lemire.me/blog/archives/2013/02/18/we-are-publishing-a-lot-more-how-will-we-cope/) Daniel Lemire seems to also think that Google Scholar will be the way things will go in the future.


  1. Why Do Scientists and Aaron Swartz Care So Much About Open Access (II. Problems) « Science, I Choose You! - February 19, 2013

    […] Read Part III. Solutions? […]

  2. Why Do Scientists and Aaron Swartz Care So Much About Open Access (I. The Issue) « Science, I Choose You! - February 19, 2013

    […] Read Part II. Problems & Part III. Solutions? […]

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