Open access dilemmas

Open access publishing is coming, but the scene is complicated and up-and-coming academics face difficult decisions.


Commercial publishers of academic journals seem to have a good thing going. Academics write the articles, but are not paid for them. Other academics serve as referees; they are not paid either. Editors manage the process; they might receive some support from their universities. After articles are published, academic libraries pay for them.

Academic institutions, most of them supported by governments, provide the money for writing, refereeing and editing articles, and then for libraries, serving academic readers, to buy back the published articles.


So what do the commercial publishers do? They might provide some copyediting, but mainly they extract exorbitant profits from their monopoly position. This has become ever more inefficient with the rise of electronic publishing. Many journals do not print hard copies. Few individuals subscribe to major academic journals and receive printed copies. Online access is the standard option.

Meanwhile, anyone outside universities is disenfranchised. Buying a single article of a few pages might cost US$30 or more.

The inefficiencies, exploitation and absurdities of the academic journal market have led to the rise of the open access movement, with the goal of ensuring that all academic work is available to anyone at no cost. The push for open access (OA) is having an impact, but at the moment the whole area is increasingly complicated.

One model, called gold OA, involves the publisher making articles free online immediately on publication. However, commercial publishers want to make money, naturally enough, so they are adopting various methods. The most common is to require authors, or their institutions, to pay a fee for gold OA. This might be US$3000 or so. It’s a disincentive for anyone who does not have institutional support.

Another model, called green OA, involves authors putting the final pre-publication versions of their articles online, usually in an institutional repository. This gives access, but for those who want to obtain the publisher’s pdf version, access through a library is usually required.

The trouble with these models is that the large commercial publishers are still extracting super-profits due to their monopoly control. The reason is that the market for academic journals is not truly competitive.


In principle, academic authors could choose to publish wherever they like. If journal A is slow and expensive, then go to journal B that is quick and provides free gold OA. The trouble is that journals have reputations, and academics are judged as much or more by where they publish as by the quality of their articles. You can write brilliant articles but if you publish them in low-status journals, your work will not be treated as seriously by fellow academics. Most of the new OA journals have not had sufficient time to develop reputations.

For an academic who is no longer seeking grants or promotions, there is no need to publish in journals that are high status or high impact: more important might be getting to receptive audiences who actually want to read the article. That might be a high-status journal in some cases and a lesser ranked outlet in others.

But such academics are the exception. Most, especially in early stages in their careers, need to worry about the impact of publications on their curriculum vitae: their most important audience is not those who actually read their articles but members of job, promotion and grant committees who read their applications. A few of these “readers” may occasionally read articles to assess their quality and importance, but many instead use the proxy measure of the status or impact of the journals in which articles are published.

This emphasis on the status of outlets is exacerbated by some organisational, disciplinary or national research evaluation schemes. The government scheme called Excellence in Research for Australia (ERA) initially provided a rating of scholarly journals (A*, A, B, C and non-ranked), and universities were assessed based on outputs using these ratings. The system had the perverse effect of penalising publication in lower-rated journals. A scholar who published four articles in A* journals helped the university’s score more than one who published four articles in A* journals plus four more in C journals. Although the journal ratings were later withdrawn, they continue to play a post-death role within universities: academics going for promotion often identify the “former ERA rating” of the journals in which they have been published. Few bother to identify the OA status of the journals.

Academics who care about both access and advancement are thus caught in a cruel dilemma. They can choose to publish only in high-status journals, maximising their career prospects while usually supporting the big commercial publishers, or they can support newer free OA journals but possibly with a cost to their academic prestige. Are there other options? And what are the prospects for the future?

Research on OA

I obtained a taste of the developments and complexities in this area by reading a lengthy document titled Open Access Publishing: A Literature Review. It was written by Giancarlo F. Frosio for a British research centre with the acronym CREATe; he has since moved to Stanford Law School.

Open Access Publishing is far more than a literature review, being instead an impressive book-length discourse and state-of-the-art assessment of OA. It includes an historical treatment of the development of publishing and copyright, coverage of a range of theories concerning copyright and OA, and a detailed assessment of OA models for publishing and for organisational policies.

Giancarlo Frosio - Resident Fellow - Intermediary Liability
Giancarlo Frosio

The history of copyright is worth studying. While it once might have made sense to provide incentives for creative work, the duration of copyright has expanded seemingly without bounds. Five or ten years of copyright protection might encourage an author to be more productive, but few authors will work harder still because copyright is extended to 70 years after their death. Currently there is perpetual copyright on the instalment plan, with extensions made whenever Mickey Mouse is about to go out of copyright. This means that those who control copyrights are extracting money based on monopoly privilege. This makes even less sense for academic publications, because most scholars sign away their rights and receive no royalties for journal articles.

My impression, after reading Frosio’s review, is that the field of academic publishing is in a state of flux, buzzing with a bewildering set of options and challenges. The central driving force in this complexity is the attempt by commercial publishers to maintain a central role in the publication process despite the fact that they serve little practical purpose, given the existence of OA models.

The OA movement has made great strides. Compared to a decade ago, vastly more universities have online repositories and policies to encourage authors to make their publications available through them. There are many more OA journals, some with high prestige. More government agencies are mandating OA for all publications in relevant areas.

Nevertheless, there are problems. The move to OA is not nearly as rapid as proponents had hoped, in part due to tactics used by publishers but even more due to the scholarly prestige system, with its incentives for publishing in the “best” journals.

For books, OA options are less advanced. Few publishers allow authors to post book images online, even decades after publication, when no more hard copies are being sold. Few authors go to the trouble of putting pre-publication versions of their books online.

Yet with current technology, it is extremely simple to publish OA books with little or no cost. After producing a pdf of the book — something fairly easy to do with word processors — it can be provided free online. Furthermore, there are services such as through which print-on-demand hard copies can be produced and sold at a moderate cost to the buyer and no cost at all to the author or publisher. Consider an esoteric scholarly tome that might sell 50 copies if produced by a commercial publisher. Why would any publisher take it on with such low sales, except at an exorbitant price? The same tome can be made free online and available for sale via print-on-demand for close to zero cost, and will probably receive far more readers from around the world.

Many publishers now make electronic versions of books available, but at a cost that restricts sales mainly to libraries. This disenfranchises those without free electronic access, though they can still read many pages via Google Books. The main reason why the majority of academics have not endorsed OA book publishing options is that they want their books published by publishers with high status.

publisher profits
Source: Alex Holcombe’s blog

Whose interests are being served?

Arguments for OA often appeal to self-interest or collective interest. For example, academics are encouraged to put their articles on institutional repositories or publish in OA journals because this will increase their visibility, readership and citations. Institutions are encouraged to adopt OA mandate policies to make scholarly work available to those with less money, including both academics in less well-funded institutions and members of the general public. Advocates of OA argue that costs will be reduced, taxpayer money used more efficiently (rather than being diverted to publishers) and universities seen as more accountable.

The usual arguments for OA can be taken a step further by asking additional questions about scholarly publication. OA means that research is available at little or no cost to readers, including students, other researchers and the general public. However, access is only one factor in making research useful to others.

One key element is understandability. Most academic writing is turgid, dense and filled with jargon, so much so that no one is likely to be interested in reading it except perhaps other academics in the same field, and even they usually prefer a more approachable style.


The usual academic writing style is promoted through the expectations of editors and referees: a submission using colloquial language and an engaging style of writing is more likely to be rejected as superficial even when the content is exactly the same. Opaque writing styles serve to exclude those from other fields and maintain a mystique of insider knowledge.

Given the low cost of online publishing, constraints of length no longer have much relevance. Hence, greater consideration could be given to making scholarly writing accessible to wider audiences, by changing the expected style of regular articles or by offering a supplementary exposition for non-experts. Authors who did this could expect to attract a wider non-specialist readership, with the potential of greater cross-disciplinary collaboration and engagement with practitioners and users. Highly technical papers might be supplemented by explanations of the context and significance of the work for wider audiences.

Open access might make some contribution towards greater understandability. Authors whose work is freely available potentially speak to two audiences: specialists in their fields and interested non-specialists. The response of non-specialists is becoming more important in terms of impact, so some authors will be encouraged to write for this wider audience, just as more scholars are setting up blogs.

OA also provides an incentive for higher quality in research. This is most obvious in open post-publication peer review, in which comments can be made on articles after publication. Even without this sort of review, immediate availability of publications can temper the tendency to hype research results. If a media release makes a claim about helping cure cancer, interested readers can check the research article for confirmation, and also check whether its abstract correctly summarises the findings in the body of the paper.

The process of public scrutiny can be uncomfortable for authors, especially given the nastiness of much online commentary. Moderating of published comments seems essential, but it takes time and effort.


The Internet is making possible a revolution in publishing, in which a much wider range of individuals can contribute to scholarship and public debate in a variety of ways. OA is one facet of this revolution. However, there is considerable resistance to full adoption of OA. Publishers are making huge profits through their intermediary role, though it is becoming ever more irrelevant. The other major obstacle to change is the self-interest of researchers, who are driven by the quest for status. As Frosio writes, “the academic reward system continues to be a major obstacle for gold OAP [OA publishing]” (p. 161). Those who care about scholarship and about public participation need to be involved to help push developments in productive directions.

Brian Martin

Giancarlo F. Frosio, Open Access Publishing: A Literature Review, CREATe Working Paper 2014/1,


Thanks to Michael Organ for useful comments.