Introduction to open access journals
Open access (OA) publishing is a relatively recent development in the scientific world, and describes a publishing model in which articles are freely available, unlike the more traditional model of scientific publishing which requires readers to pay to access articles. BioMed Central and the Public Library of Science (more commonly known as PLOS), which were two of the first two major publishing houses to adopt the open access model, launched this model in the early 2000s, and since that time, many other publishers have decided to go partly or fully open access.
What are the different types of open access?
These days, journals publish articles under three main types of open access models, referred to as ‘green’, ‘gold’, and ‘platinum’ OA. There are a few important differences that distinguish each of these models from each other:
- Green OA – In this model, published articles are made freely available in some form and at some time after publication. In practice, this often means that an early version of the manuscript such as a proof is often deposited in a repository (not on the journal’s website) within a few weeks or months of publication, and the publisher retains the copyright. In some cases, the responsibility for ‘archiving’ the article (submitting it to a repository) rests with the authors.
- Gold OA – In this model, the final version of the published article is made freely available at the time of publication, typically on the journal’s website, and the authors own the copyright.
- Platinum OA – This model is very similar to gold open access, with one key distinction: authors do not pay to publish in a journal with a platinum open access model. Instead of charging authors an article processing charge (APC), these journals support the costs of publication in other ways. The role of APCs in scientific publishing is a contentious topic, and will be discussed in more detail below.
Benefits of publishing in an open access journal
Open access has revolutionised the scientific publishing field, as it has opened up research access to a much wider range of readers than previously. Under the traditional publishing model, individual researchers or institutions need to pay to access articles, whether they purchase the articles on an individual basis or buy a subscription (which is common for libraries at larger research institutions). However, this means that the full scientific record is disproportionately available to wealthy researchers, universities and companies, while those with fewer resources are essentially excluded from large portions of the output from the scientific community. With open access, all researchers, and even members of the public, have equal access to the same information.
Another benefit of publishing in an open access journal is that these journals tend to publish online and continuously, meaning that articles are published one by one on a rolling basis as they are accepted, instead of being collected and published together in a single paper issue at a specific time. This means that open access articles tend to be published more quickly, and can be shared easily online, with the ultimate effect of accelerating the speed at which new information spreads, and thus the overall pace of scientific research.
The quality of open access journals compared with standard journals
How do open access journals compare with traditional journals in terms of quality? At the beginning of the open access movement, there was a common misconception in the scientific community that open access journals did not subject articles to peer review, which led to these journals being regarded with distrust. However, this is not the case: open access journals differ from traditional journals solely in providing access to articles without charging a fee, and the work published in these journals is peer reviewed just as it is by traditional journals.
Similar to traditional journals, open access journals vary widely in terms of scope, competitiveness, the number of articles published, the frequency of publication and more. So when it comes to choosing an open access journal to submit to, the same advice about choosing any journal to publish in applies: it’s important to choose a journal with the right scope, impact factor and readership for your paper.
APCs for open access journals
Of course, in addition to the publishing model, another important consideration in choosing which journal to publish in is the fee they charge for publication. The APC is used to cover the administrative and other costs of publishing a paper, and can vary widely from journal to journal.
In the case of open access journals, which, as mentioned earlier, are typically published solely online, the APC does not need to cover the costs of a paper-based issue. This can mean that APCs for open access journals are lower than those for traditional journals. That being said, open access journals do not receive any ‘income’ in the form of subscription fees, so in some cases they raise their APCs in order to compensate for this.
How do you decide whether the APC is reasonable?
There are, of course, a number of factors to take into account.
One approach is to identify a traditional journal of a similar size and scope and see how their APCs compare. Be sure to pay attention to the details of what the APC covers: for example, the APC for a traditional journal may seem lower, but if they charge you for color figures, this could raise the cost to a level similar to that of their open access competitor; online-only open access journals rarely limit the number of color figures your paper can contain.
Another aspect to keep in mind is that many institutions and funding agencies provide different levels of support for paying APCs depending on the journal’s publishing model. If you are unsure how much financial support your university or grant will give you to publish in an open access journal, it’s a good idea to check before submitting, as this could make a big difference to what you actually end up paying directly.
Finally, remember that publishing in an open access journal (and specifically gold and platinum open access journals) typically means that you will retain the copyright to your own work, which could be worth paying a little more for the APC. Owning the copyright means that you can reuse the text and images (in accordance with ethical publication standards, of course), without needing to obtain permission from the publisher; for example, you may wish to use a published figure in a textbook chapter.
As we have discussed in this post, there are many benefits to publishing your scientific article in an open access journal. One of the most universally appreciated features of open access publishing is the ability to communicate your work to a much wider readership than is typically reached by articles published in traditional journals. Open access journals can also offer considerable advantages in terms of retaining the copyright to your own work, and potentially lower APCs.
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