Topic 5

Topic 5: Open Access – Is There A Dark Side?

What is Open Access?
Introduction to Open Access
Figure 1. Introduction to Open Access (self-produced via Haiku Deck, with information from Jisc)

Within higher education, we all know the frustration that comes with finding a great journal article, only to find that it’s access is restricted. This has become a particular issue for me, a content consumer, over the course of writing my dissertation. However, what does restricted access and open access mean from the point of view of a content producer?

Figure 2. Pros and Cons of Open Access (self-produced via Biteable)

As shown, there are a number pros and cons that content producers must consider when choosing where to publish their work.

The Debate For

Despite the drawbacks, perceptions of open access appear to be improving. A study found that in 2014, 40% of scientists had concerns about the quality of open access publications, a figure which dropped to 27% in 2015 (Author Insights Survey, 2015).

An important argument for open access comes from the view that publicly funded research should be publicly available (Merkley, 2016). Whilst some argue that the people that really need access to scientific papers (researchers, medical professionals, academic students) have access through their institutions, what about the rest of the population who are left in the dark? (Browne, 2014). Over the past few years, the science community has recognised the flaws of restricted access, based on the idea that paywalls inhibit further research, education and innovation (Dunn, 2013). Moreover, some of the ethical issues discussed in Topic 4, such as the digital divide, may be reduced through the use of open access (Geib, 2013).

Professor Stevan Harnad argument for open access
Figure 3. Argument For Open Access (self-produced via Canva)

With many reasons for, you might be left thinking, “of course all online content should be free to access”. However, there are two sides to every coin…

The Debate Against

A major argument against open access comes from the perception that open access journals contain poorer quality articles (Curry, 2012). This has become a particular concern with the emergence of predatory publishing, or, the ‘dark side’ of open access (Pickler et al., 2014). Yet, from the perspective of the content producer, publishing open access can be as expensive, if not more expensive, than publishing via the traditional model (Geib, 2013). Furthermore, some argue that open access publishing runs the risk of demonising junior researchers and PhD students, who may often choose to publish their work in prestigious journals, behind paywalls, to boost their own career opportunities (Chambers, 2013). Should this choice not to go open access be considered selfish?

Michael J. Held argument against open access
Figure 4. Argument Against Open Access (self-produced via Canva)
Conclusion?

Overall, the debate on open access appears to create a conflict between what’s good for science and what’s good for scientists (Chambers, 2013). Whilst I am certainly in support of open access from the perspective of a content consumer, the arguments relating to the perspective of a content producer are not quite so clear-cut.

(419 words)

References

Author Insights Survey (2015). Nature Publishing Group.

Browne, T. (2014). Let’s shine a light on paywalls that deny open access to scientific research. The Guardian.

Chambers, C. (2013). Those who publish research behind paywalls are victims not perpetrators. The Guardian.

Curry, S. (2012). Set science free from publishers’ paywalls. New Scientist.

Dunn, D. (2013). Education Finally Ripe For Radical Innovation By Social Entrepreneurs. Forbes.

Geib, A. (2013). Advantages and Disadvantages of Open Access. edanz editing.

Hitt, E. (2003). Pros and Cons of Open-Access Publishing Debated. Medscape.

Jisc (2016). An introduction to open access.

Merkley, R. (2016). You Pay to Read Research You Fund. That’s Ludicrous. Wired.

Pickler, R., Noyes, J., Perry, L., Roe, B., Watson, R., & Hayter, M. (2014). Authors and readers beware the dark side of Open Access. Journal of Advanced Nursing, 71(10). 2221-2223.

Wiley, D., Green, C., & Soares, L. (2012). Dramatically Bringing down the Cost of Education with OER. Center For American Progress.

Figure References

Figure 1: Self-produced via Haiku Deck.

Figure 2: Self-produced via Biteable.

Figure 3: Self-produced via Canva.

Figure 4: Self-produced via Canva.

Featured image

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19 thoughts on “Topic 5: Open Access – Is There A Dark Side?

  1. Hi Patricia,

    Thanks for another great post, I particularly like the video you’ve made that presents the issues in a really clear way. The entire area of Open Access in academia is really interesting and, as you point out, one that impacts on us as students and consumers quite often!

    Just a couple of points on your disadvantages of OA, which I feel steam from the infancy of OA not the whole idea. Firstly, you say how people are wary of OA journals, as the quality of the papers is reduced. However, if the top journals moved to an OA model, then this distinction wouldn’t exist. They are unlikely to do this because of the revenues they currently generate from subscriptions. What do you think?

    Secondly, the main problem with current OA journals is that they are perceived as ‘pay to publish’ and therefore of inferior quality. Although this often the case, this is not how OA has to be. OA merely means it’s free to read, not that you have to pay to publish. Therefore, revenue could be generated from other means, such as advertising (see http://firstmonday.org/ojs/index.php/fm/article/view/2777/2478). Do you think this is a sustainable way of funding OA? (you mention in your post that OA may not be economically viable, why would this be?)

    Finally, I feel like we’re generally being limited in our perspective on OA. Creative solutions and alternative business models can be employed, there is no single way of achieving OA. It’s important to remember that publishers are currently enjoying a lucrative revenue stream. Therefore, the drawbacks of OA merely have to be less than the cost of the current system. Do you think that OA is worth it?

    Thanks again for your post, I’d love to hear your thoughts.

    Mark.

    Like

    1. Hi Mark,

      Thank you for your kind comment!

      I agree with your point that if top journals moved to an OA model, this may help to close the perceived gap in quality between OA journals and traditional journals. However, as this move to OA has not yet been achieved, there are still many researchers that are sceptical, as highlighted in this paper. I do understand the top journals’ argument that moving to an OA model may compromise revenues. Not only this, but I think the fact that publishers have spent decades building the quality and reputation of their journals means that a move to OA almost seems like a step backwards (more info here). I can certainly empathise with both sides of this debate, which illustrates its complexity!

      In terms of advertising as an alternative way of generating revenue, it is very context-dependent. As mentioned in the article you shared, the amount of revenue generated depends on the publisher’s web traffic. Thus, advertising may be a sustainable source of revenue for some larger publishers, but less so for smaller publishers. Also, whereas paywalls generate consistent revenues, advertising revenues may be more fluctuating and unpredictable. It is for these reasons that I think OA may not be economically sustainable. Having said this, as outlined in this article, there are some publishers (e.g., Buzzfeed) that have successfully employed advertising as a way of maintaining OA.

      You make an excellent point about how lucrative the publishing industry is. The phrase ‘if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it’ comes to mind… However, from my point of view, the benefits of OA do outweigh the costs for both content consumers and producers, so I do think it is worth pushing for. What is your take on this?

      Thanks,
      Patricia

      Liked by 1 person

      1. HI Patricia,

        Thanks for your reply, you raise some interesting points.

        It is certainly a complex debate, with many arguments and counter-arguments. Certainly, Open Access raises issues with traditional publishers, but how much of this is simply a response to threatened revenues? I certainly see no reason, fundamentally, why OA means reduced quality of papers. However, of course, this has been seen in reality.

        I agree with your point regarding advertising. It certainly seems that as a solution, it is lacking. What other alternative revenue streams could be leveraged? Could bitcoin and micropayments also be used here?

        Finally, it is true that the current system of publishing has worked for many decades. However, that is no reason why it should continue. The Web is very disruptive technology, and therefore we have an opportunity to change an important sector for the better. Finally, it may not be broken for us in the West, with well-resourced universities and science, but is fundamentally unfair to those in poorer countries. Therefore, this is a key driver of inequality in science.

        I’d love to hear any further idea you may have.

        Thanks again,
        Mark.

        Like

        1. Hi Mark,

          Thank you for sharing your thoughts!

          I too wonder if the arguments made by traditional publishers are a simple response to threatened revenues, which of course is a valid concern, but one that raises some ethical issues within this debate. As you say, in theory, there should be no reason why OA means reduced quality of papers. There are in fact very clear success stories, such as the OA journal PLoS One, that now publishes more papers than any other life science journal and has a reputable impact factor.

          I think that bitcoin and micropayments could definitely be areas to explore here as alternatives to advertising. This article highlights some of the micropayment services currently being used to fund journalism, with mixed views about their successes. An example that springs to mind is The Guardian, who maintain free access to their articles through one-off contributions. This may provide publishers some food for thought, but as we have discussed, there is certainly no one-size-fits-all model when it comes to increasing revenues.

          Finally, you are very right to bring up the issue of the digital divide and inequality in science, which I think is one of the major arguments for the OA movement. If you are interested in exploring this issue further, this article provides an interesting take on predatory publishing, positioning it as part of a larger problem of information inequality in the digital age.

          Thanks again,
          Patricia

          Liked by 1 person

          1. Hi Patricia,

            Thanks for an enlightening continued discussion!

            I certainly feel that way, journals are profit-seeking companies and, as such, owe it to their shareholders to protect such revenues. For sure, this raises ethical issues about the structure of such an important industry. The example of PLoS On (which I had not seen before, thank you!) shows that this model can certainly work in practice. What do you think it is about their approach that has made them so successful? Or is it simply the field of life sciences being particularly well suited to OA? As shown in the graph, cited in my post https://mac2g14.files.wordpress.com/2017/05/citation-impact.png, there seem to be significant differences between fields in the impact of OA.

            The parallels between newspaper journalism, such as the Guardian as you say, and academic publishing are interesting. Of course, newspapers are more mainstream and, therefore, are probably better suited to advertising and other revenues streams as discussed. As you say there’s not ‘one size fits all’ solutions here. Personally, I hope that the OA debate leads to exciting innovations in academic publishing.

            Thanks for that article, it was certainly an interesting read. It definitely illustrates the almost racist issues surrounding OA.In particular those desperate to publish because otherwise, they cannot get their work out. This is a symptom of a broken system.

            I’d love to hear any further thoughts you might have!

            Cheers,
            Mark.

            Like

            1. Hi Mark,

              Thank you again for your response!

              I’m glad to have furthered your outlook with the example of PLoS One, and thank you for bringing my attention to the graph in your post. It’s very interesting to see different disciplines taking to OA differently, and it would be interesting to scratch beneath to surface to uncover some of the reasons behind this.

              I do think that the life sciences sector in particular is suited to OA, due to the vast amount of scientific research that is conducted, the rapidly-changing technologies involved and global impact of the discoveries. It seems that there is certainly a need for life scientists to keep on top of all this research in real-time in order to make scientific progress.

              Having said this, I did come across this recent article explaining how PLoS One’s publication output has shrunk by 30% since its peak in 2013. Do you think this might be due to a failure of the OA model, or due to competition from other OA journals? I’d be interested to hear your thoughts!

              Thanks again,
              Patricia

              Like

  2. Hi Patricia

    What a great read! I loved your clear structure and was amazed by your use of visuals such as the video you created on Biteable.com to showcase the different pros and cons of open access; it added an enjoyable, creative flair to your post.

    Similar to Madeleine’s post, you mentioned the argument taxpayers having the right to have access to government paid research. I strongly agree with this, however it still produces some disadvantages for the producer. I believe to help fix this issue, it would be a good idea for local councils to provide databases of paid research journals for local taxpayers, do you agree? I found this Ted talk by Brigitte Daniel very interesting ; she smartly links the topic of civil rights to online research access and also includes the view of paywalls aiding the digital divide which you also mentioned above – take a look and share your thoughts.

    Eloane

    (155 words)

    Like

    1. Hi Eloane,

      Thank you for your kind comment!

      I certainly agree with the view that publicly-funded research should be publicly available, and a database aiming to make this research accessible to taxpayers is an excellent solution.

      This article outlines the EU plans to make all publicly-funded scientific papers free to access by 2020, which is a positive advance for the open access movement. As well as this, in an interview with Professor Stevan Harnad (an advocate for open access), he states that many prestigious research institutions and funders have adopted mandatory policies, stating that all research outputs must be made open access. Would you say these policies are a step in the right direction?

      As you mention, there are still disadvantages to this open access model for content producers. In your opinion, which disadvantage do you think is the most significant in limiting the movement to fully open access?

      The TED talk by Brigitte Daniel was very interesting and I particularly liked her take on the digital divide. Previously, I thought of the digital divide as the gap between low-income countries and high-income countries. However, I now see that other populations can also be disadvantaged by restricted access to the internet and information, such as the elderly, independent film-makers, and start-up innovators. Positioning the internet as a fundamental civil rights issue is a stance that I hadn’t previously considered!

      Many thanks,
      Patricia

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Hi Patricia,
        Thank you for your prompt reply. I enjoyed the article and interview you shared above, I believe the policies mentioned are definitely a step in the right direction to increase the availability of open access journals. However, due to the disadvantages of open access to content producers, I believe they will be the hardest to convince despite the policies in place. Researchers who are strongly against publishing on open access might be discouraged to carry out publicly funded research and this could promote a negative impact for the science and innovation, do you agree? To answer your question , I personally believe that the biggest disadvantage of open access for producers is the financial loss and reduced impact factor of open access. This article explains why producers in academia have failed to support open access publishing due to the disadvantages for researchers.
        I agree with your point on the digital divide which leads to the point that non-digital residents such as the elderly would be restricted with media (journals, film and music) available mostly online and therefore there should be a balance of paid for and free access to media. For instance, my grandparents still purchase CD’s as they do not know who to use music streaming on their devices – imagine if hardcopy music no longer existed – they wouldn’t be able to listen to new music without help on how to use today’s technology.
        Eloane

        Like

        1. Hi Eloane,

          Thanks for your response!

          I agree that a big concern with these policies is the influence it might have on researchers that are against open access. Researchers avoiding engaging in publicly-funded research would have a major negative impact for science and innovation. However, I do think (and hope!) that this would be an extreme case.

          Thank you for sharing the article outlining some of the disadvantages of open access. Publishing is hugely important to researchers so it’s understandable that they would have some concerns over financial losses and impact factors. However, this article suggests that a lot of these concerns are just misconceptions or ‘myths’. This to me suggests that more awareness needs to be raised about open access in order for researchers to generate more informed opinions and decisions. Would you agree?

          You raise a great point about the digital divide, and I think the example of your grandparents is probably a very common issue across the world. I think the main point to emphasise is that it’s not about making absolutely everything out there (articles, music, images etc.) free to access, but to ensure that everyone has equal rights and opportunities to different types of access.

          Thanks again,
          Patricia

          Like

  3. Hi Patricia,

    I loved your conclusion describing the conflict between what’s good for science and what’s good for the scientist. It literally summarises, in my opinion, the biggest dilemma of open access.

    I was surprised to read that figures have dropped concerning the perceived quality of open access publications. This is because I personally struggle from information overload when conducting research on the internet. There is simply too much online information being uploaded every day and it is not always easy to determine how credible or reliable a resource is.

    This reminded me of an article that Andrei shared with me in which Turkish citizens are restricted access from Wikipedia.

    Wikipedia is well known for not having the most reliable information. This is due to the fact that anyone can make changes. Do you believe it is fair for Turkish authorities to block access from Wikipedia?

    I look forward to your reply,

    Sharon Bürgin

    (155 words)

    Like

    1. Hi Sharon,

      Thank you for your comment!

      You raise a really good point that it is not always easy to assess how credible or reliable a source is, and with the increased threat of predatory publishing, this can be even more difficult. There are some online resources to help content producers identify which open access journals are reputable, but as content consumers and students, we are given very little information on how to navigate the vast number of articles accessible to us.

      As outlined in this article, it seems that Turkey had their reasons for blocking access to Wikipedia. However, in my opinion, this is fundamentally unethical and in terms of open access, it is certainly a step in the wrong direction. Do you agree? In particular, I think this highlights the greater issue of the digital divide.

      A similar example that springs to mind is the ‘Great Firewall of China’, which restricts access to many websites that are considered unfavourable by the government, such as Google, Twitter, and other research publications. According to this article, these restrictions on access to scientific research actually fuel predatory publishing in countries such as China. What is your take on these issues? Do you think that open access is the answer to bridging the scientific gap?

      Many thanks,
      Patricia

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Hi Patricia,

        thank you for taking the time to answer my comment. I personally share your opinion and agree that it is truly unethical to restrict people from accessing certain pages. Although the information on this website is not always accurate, I believe it is a useful tool to gain a quick understanding on various topics.

        Regarding the Great Firewall of China, I can to some extent understand why it was set in place, however I would feel uncomfortable knowing how much control the government would have over my online activities.

        The article that you have shared summarizes the problem very well. If it was up to me I would gladly promote open access, simply due to the reason that it would benefit the wider society.

        Many thanks,

        Sharon Bürgin

        Liked by 1 person

  4. Hi patricia, I really enjoyed reading your latest blog post. I definitely understand your feeling of frustration when you cant find that particular article you need because of restrictions! I loved the visuals you created, especially figure 2. They were are all really eye-catching and made the information easier to digest. I had not took into account the how open access could be viewed negatively from a consumer perspective as i thought it could only be a good thing. Therefore i was interested to learn that 40% of scientists had concerns about the quality of open access publications, and this figure dropped to 27% a year later. Why do you think this figure dropped so quickly and do you think their are any other negative points to open access from a consumer perspective. I would also be interested to learn your opinions on “creative commons”, and whether you think this is a better alternative to open access?

    King regards
    Cherie
    word count:150

    Like

    1. Hi Cherie,

      Thank you for your positive comments!

      With regards to the decrease in concerns amongst scientists about the quality of open access publications, I think this decrease could mostly be due to increased awareness about open access. For example, this study found that higher awareness of open access was related to more positive perceptions of open access. To me, this demonstrates a great need to raise awareness about open access, so that scientists and researchers can make more informed decisions. As shared with Eloane, this article outlines some ‘myths’ of open access that may be unnecessarily putting off researchers. Would you agree that the issue here is awareness?

      With regards to creative commons, I think that this can work alongside open access. For example, according to this article, the leading open access journals (e.g., PloS and Biomed Central) use the creative commons licence ‘attribution’. This allows research papers to be cited and reused, which maximises the impact of the research paper and thus benefits the author. What is your view on creative commons?

      Many thanks,
      Patricia

      Like

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