Shades of Open Access

Do you think that published science should be freely available to everyone? Of course you do. Most people do. But like every ‘ideal’ system, there are positives and negatives to OA publishing, some that outweigh others. While the overall benefit of OA (public access to scientific information) is a valid reason to advocate it, this single positive is also a huge generalisation encompassing lots of grey areas.

In general, the black-and-white ‘OA is essential’ opinions get the most exposure, with very little discussion of how to manage all the shades of grey. This can give an unbalanced view of the issue and also means that any valid ‘other sides’ to the OA ideal are rarely given credence.

The term ‘open access’ may mean different things to different people, and the cultural connotations of OA can differ significantly between disciplines and demographics. For example, humanities disciplines can be more cautious than science disciplines about jumping on the OA bandwagon. Is it because humanities researchers generally get less funding than scientists (so publishing fees lose priority)? Or is it because humanities-based research and investigations often create more books than journal articles, which aren’t as readily converted to OA?

I am not advocating either for or against OA. But I am suggesting that, while we strive for the OA ideal, we also consider contexts and accept that there are positives to supporting a combination of OA and non-OA publishing.

What are the cultural connotations (outside academia) of a scientist paying to publish their work?

Designing and publishing research is essentially knowledge building and sharing. Think about other types of knowledge sharers: teachers, investigative journalists, writers, lawyers. All of these roles are specialists in their field of knowledge, and their career revolves around designing, creating and sharing knowledge with an interested audience.

In these careers, the writer/thinker/creator rarely pays for their work to be published. In fact, before the Internet came along and shook up the ethical fault lines in society, most forms of self-publication were considered a wee bit distasteful. Paying to be heard (essentially a form of self-publication) often connotes bias or corporate infiltration…i.e. advertising.

Arguably, this is the system that most non-specialist audiences are also familiar with. You either get paid or you volunteer your services, you rarely pay someone else to let you publish your work. If community engagement is crucial to a scientist’s work, is there a risk that publishing OA could lose credibility with public or non-specialist audiences? How do we, as scientists seeking credibility, deal with this?

What about Societies?

Some paywalled journals are published by a scientific society, so members receive the journal as part of their subscription fee. These subscription-based societies are aimed at professionals (academic and non-academic) working in a particular field (e.g. The Linnean Society, Royal Entomological Society, or Ecological Society of Australia). Societies are important resources for their members, giving them access to job and research opportunities, networking events, and scientific conferences. Regional societies, like many Natural History societies, are also very successful at science communication aimed at engaging amateur/non-specialist people in the discipline.

Society-based journals are mostly published from funds raised through membership subscriptions. So if we all jump on the OA bandwagon, what happens to the societies that can’t afford to publish their journal OA?

Are paywalls an underutilised networking opportunity?

With the wonders of modern technology, there are now lots of ways we can legitimately access non-OA articles for ‘free’, which kind of negates the myth that paywalls ‘lock up’ research and increase the public-science divide. Google Scholar can usually tell you if there is a free copy available online; online journal libraries like JSTOR allow users to set up an account and read a number of articles every year for free; real libraries often have hard copies of the journal (gathering dust on shelves in the back corner). If you work at an institution that doesn’t have access to a particular article, chances are your library can source you a copy through an inter-library loans system.

And if you can’t get access online, maybe that’s an underutilised networking tool? The author’s email address is given for a reason. If you can’t access one of my articles, send me an email – I’m more than happy to send you a copy if you ask nicely!

More opportunities for science communication and engagement!

Scientific articles are not a ‘mainstream’ medium. They use language that only peer-group scientists and specialist science communicators can understand. Just making an article free to view doesn’t make it more accessible or useful to a general audience. Australia’s Commonwealth and State government legislation is online for everyone to access for free. But if I’m looking for legal advice, I will search for the jargon-free version online before I read the actual legislation.

Similarly, for science to have impact beyond its peer audience, it usually needs to be translated through a common language. So publishing OA is not a necessity or replacement for science communication, it is really just an added bonus.

One of the positives of our modern dependence on technology and the Internet is the ability to connect and engage with more people. Today, a scientist has more opportunity than ever to share their findings with global peer and non-peer audiences through social media, emails, youtube and online news/analysis sites – most versions of which will be more ‘readable’ for more people. And if a scientist doesn’t have time, skills or interest to use those media, most science-beat journalists would love to have a bona fide scientist approach them and say “Hey, I’ve done some research that could potentially benefit people, would you be interested in telling my story?”

What do you think?

I’m keen to know your thoughts on the contexts around OA vs non-OA publishing. There are two polls below, one for authors of journal articles and one for non-specialist readers of journal articles (i.e. non-academics or academics reading articles that aren’t critical to their research or in their own specialty). Feel free to answer either or both – they are completely anonymous. If your preferred answer doesn’t appear, please leave a comment!



© Manu Saunders 2014


10 thoughts on “Shades of Open Access

  1. KrisD April 26, 2015 / 10:39 PM

    I think you make some interesting points, especially with regards to the accessibility of the information when many articles employ field-specific language. I couldn’t vote as my views don’t correspond to either of the author option. I think authors should choose open access if they can, but I personally choose not to publish open access for two reasons – firstly it is expensive and my funds cannot stretch that far. Secondly, most journals allow authors to post pre-published versions of their papers on sites such as Researchgate, Academia and their own websites. So in this way, I can still make sure my work is accessible to those who don’t have access to scientific journals. However it should be noted that many funding bodies (e.g. UK research councils) now require scientists to make their work open access for transparency of the use of public funds, and accessibility of data.


    • Manu Saunders April 27, 2015 / 7:52 AM

      Thanks Kris – I had entered 3 options for each survey, but only 2 appeared for some reason. I have fixed it now! Great point about the funding agency requirements, it is the same in Australia. But I’m not sure how many specify that it must be published in an OA journal, i.e is it possible to meet this requirement by posting a pre-publication version online?


      • KrisD April 27, 2015 / 8:35 AM

        I don’t believe so. It would depend on the funding body, but it doesn’t have to be a fully OA journal as long as your article is open access. The costs of the OA is usually borne by the funding body either through the original grant application, or another scheme (e.g. providing funds to the institution which the researcher can then apply to).


  2. ScientistSeesSquirrel April 27, 2015 / 9:36 AM

    Great post, and glad to see some folks thinking before jumping on the bandwagon! Another point that worries me is that author fees may disproportionately hurt scientists in the developing world (and it’s hard to see what incentivizes pay-to-publish journals with no other revenue stream to offer fee waivers). You often hear OA touted because it makes the literature “accessible” to those who can’t pay for subscriptions, but this is only true on the reading end, not the publishing end.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Manu Saunders April 27, 2015 / 11:11 AM

      Thanks! Yes, I agree with you about the fees affecting scientists in the developing world or at less affluent institutions. It can also put off PhD students or independent scientists not affiliated with an institution.


  3. sleather2012 April 27, 2015 / 5:07 PM

    The point about learned societies is very important – without a publishing stream income the Royal Entomological Society and the British Ecological Society would not be able to fund the research and events that they do. Also note that both those societies have no page charges so free for authors to publish their work, which is incredibly important for researchers without big grant income or those without any research income at all.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Manu Saunders April 27, 2015 / 7:18 PM

      Yes, I completely agree – it is a very important point to consider, but one that I have rarely heard discussed!


  4. Tim Barlow (@TimBarlow3) April 30, 2015 / 2:06 PM

    Great post Manu, and a number of good comments added above. I didn’t respond (as a ‘reader’) as I didn’t find any of the 3 responses provided really suited my view, thus these comments. I’m not prepared to pay $35 for a paper I haven’t yet read, especially not when there are many more papers I would like to read (pay for). But I’m happy to email the author a request (I’ve only had one knock-back) if I think its worth both our time. In addition, pay-walled papers often exist on the net in .pdf form somewhere. And most public libraries have access to a range of journals in many disciplines and the librarians will, in my experience, go to some effort to help find what I’m after. I like the principle of Open Access, as there are many of us ‘peri-scientists’ interested in and capable of understanding the relevant literature that may not have institutional affiliations / access (thankfully I do, for now!). However, I am concerned about quality of peer review in some OA journals, and time demands on reviewers generally. I hadn’t considered the impact on professional societies until now, so thanks for raising that. Since one can usually get to a pay-walled paper with a bit of effort, OA may be better considered as Easy Access. Like you, I think it’s a mistake to think that publishing in OA is the same as communicating the science. I’m all for plain-language summaries being disseminated to support communication (but please don’t call them ‘lay summaries’!), and I’d like to discover a repository of these somewhere – something like Science Direct Alerts for the Plebs. For me, being +/- outside the system, the difficulty is not so much of access, as awareness of what is out there in the published world. “Keeping abreast of the literature” ain’t easy! Cheers, Tim

    Liked by 1 person

    • Manu Saunders April 30, 2015 / 8:08 PM

      Thanks Tim! Great comments. It’s nice to see that so many other people are on the same page about this, as these views don’t get as much airplay as the pro-OA opinions. And thanks for raising the point about ‘peri-scientists’ and wanting to be aware of what’s out there – that’s a really interesting point that also justifies the need for science communication beyond the publication!


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