Open Access Publishing: Prelude to a paradigm shift in the dissemination of scientific literature

The scientific community is bearing witness to the rise of a new method of literature dissemination, the Open Access Publishing model. I believe the adoption and implementation of this model will prove to be beneficial to both scientific researchers and the general public. I will show that the Open Access model is compatible with high scientific standards, is an economically viable mode of literature dissemination, and possesses unique attributes that may significantly alter the written research record. The current resistance that exists around the Open Access Initiative may be due partially to a lack of understanding of the model and its aims.

The two main aims of the Open Access Publishing model for scientific literature are to enable the widespread dissemination of published material and to make access to the information freely available. For a publication to meet these aims, two specific conditions must be met, based on the Bethesda Statement on Open Access Publishing: 1) Authors and copyright holders grant to all users free, irrevocable, worldwide, perpetual right of access to, and a license to copy, use, distribute, perform and display the work publicly, and to make and distribute derivative works in any digital medium for any reasonable purpose, subject to proper attribution of authorship, as well as the right to make small numbers of printed copies for their personal use; and 2) A complete version of the work and all supplemental materials, including a copy of the permission as stated above, in a suitable standard electronic format is deposited immediately upon initial publication in at least one online repository that is supported by an academic institution, scholarly society, government agency, or other well-established organization that seeks to enable open access, unrestricted distribution, interoperability, and long-term archiving (1).

The Open Access Initiative has set its sights on providing improved access to the scientific literature primarily by changing the method of revenue collection for journal publishers. A complementary aim is to reduce the actual price of journals by reducing overall costs. One quick way to do this is by removing large profit margins from the price of journals. I am using the terms for-profit and not-for-profit in their literal sense throughout this article. A for-profit publishing company’s aim is quite clear, to make money, but the situation with not-for-profit societies is slightly more difficult to interpret. In this regard and within the scope of my arguments for enabling access to scientific literature, I think that not-for-profit societies that maintain for-profit publishing arms can be viewed similarly as for-profit publishers. Both are increasingly to blame for the soaring costs of journal subscriptions, regardless of where the final profits are funneled.

The Open Access Publishing model was proposed partly in response to the fact that access to scholarly publications is becoming difficult and costly due to the growing market share of commercial for-profit publishers and a rise in periodical subscription prices. For example, the University of California was forced to bargain aggressively with the publisher Reed Elsevier (holders of 23% market-share) to secure reasonably priced access to desired journals. This was due to a common practice amongst publishers to offer journal subscription bundles, a practice that ties substantial savings for journals only when purchased as a group, with the publisher defining the list of bundled journal titles. Substitution or removal of journal titles from the bundle is not allowed and the purchasing of journal titles individually is prohibitive in cost. The University of California was successful in negotiating reasonable access to titles published by Reed Elsevier, only by bargaining as a statewide whole, in a consolidated front. Since 1986, journal subscriptions have risen over 200% and society journals are not immune to large price hikes either. As an example, the subscription price of Science has been rising at 12% per year (2). A further example is revealed by a gross comparison of industries in the UK. Here, publishing as a whole is larger than the pharmaceutical industry and about half the size of the telecommunications industry, with an estimated turnover of £22 billion in the year 2000. Although the science/technology/medicine (STM) sectors of publishing compromise only a small proportion of the total publishing industry, they have realized an average profit margin estimated at 35% (3). In comparison, the top 20 worldwide pharmaceutical companies have been able to realize a 29% profit margin (4). Clearly, for-profit publishers benefit very well from their ‘service’ of disseminating scientific knowledge (5).

Unfortunately, it is perceived that by publishing in Open Access journals one is risking their professional reputation. If one concedes that journal impact factor is a ranking of scientific merit, then, one also must concede that there is risk in publishing in Open Access journals. This risk can be mitigated by publishing only in those Open Access journals that have a self-proclaimed goal of competing with the best of the current subscription-based journals. Furthermore, there is new evidence that the pool of Open Access journals, as indexed by Thomson ISI, fit a similar overall distribution with respect to impact factor as the current subscription-based journals (6). Thomson ISI acknowledges that their analysis is based on a small data set and suggests that a forthcoming analysis may have clearer evidence for the impact of Open Access. Indeed, it may take longer for strong evidence either way, as many open access journals are relatively new and it takes some length of time to generate a stable impact factor. Another common misconception is that Open Access publications are not peer-reviewed. This is not correct as most publications do have rigorous peer review, in line with the spectrum of peer review that is currently present in the established STM journals. Open Access journals such as the Journal of Biology, which in 2003 had a 5% acceptance rate for submitted articles, are aiming to compete with the current top ranking journals such as Nature and Science. The Public Library of Science has also launched PLoS Biology and will soon launch PLoS Medicine, both of which aim to uphold high standards of excellence for their published articles through rigorous peer review.

Alternatively, one may suggest that the relative merit of a piece of work should not be judged by the impact factor of the publishing journal, but should be measured by the impact of the article alone. Determining impact by tracking article citations is currently possible and although not a perfect system, is no better or worse a measure than the journal impact factor. One could also suggest that the impact of a finding is not accurately reflected by the number of times it has been cited. Judging scientific impact by bibliometric data alone is a difficult task at best.

Beyond impact factor, there is a professional obligation of providing one’s work to as large an audience as possible. Information that is widely distributed has the potential for the greatest impact by allowing others to assimilate and/or develop the ideas that are brought forward. Without widespread dissemination, knowledge that is published will have little impact. Publicly funded researchers are accountable to their funding sources and should ultimately strive to release their findings to publicly accessible journals, or at a minimum freely available to all who wish to see it. Unfortunately, without strong financial resources or proper affiliations an individual does not have access to the vast majority of scholarly work. By publishing our work with for-profit publishers, we are empowering information brokers who profit by distributing our findings. Funding agencies have recognized this and some are beginning to alter their grant requirements, such that authors, at a minimum, are encouraged to publish using Open Access models.

Critics of the Open Access Publishing model suggest that the model is economically untenable. The current mode of recovering costs in an Open Access Publishing model is by having authors pay publication fees, thus allowing free availability of the literature to the end user. The author-pays model is not entirely new, as some subscription-based journals also charge authors to publish their material (in addition to charging subscription fees!). Why would an Open Access publication that uses an author-pays model not be similarly possible? By utilizing electronic distribution of literature, Open Access publications may in fact realize lower overall costs than print journals, therefore reducing the revenue required to maintain economic viability. Academic institutions, which house the individuals that are simultaneously the authors and readers of the scientific literature, can utilize their funds for procuring subscriptions as the funds used by their authors to defray publication costs. Funding agencies such as the Wellcome Trust are willing to help defray the costs of publishing by providing mechanisms in their grants for publication funds. Granting agencies and foundations are also supporting Open Access directly. For example, the Public Library of Science received a $9 million grant from the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation to launch Open Access journals, and also received endorsement by the Howard Hughes Medical Institute, which agreed to pay publication costs for all its investigators (7). In the end, large-scale support for Open Access will lead to the development of reliable revenue sources for their on-going survival.

Aided by the increasing use and dependence on electronic, on-line dissemination of the scientific literature, support of Open Access publishing by the academic community is also good for the development of science. The second requirement of the Open Access model is that publications are deposited into an archive that strives for interoperability and unrestricted distribution. A side-effect of having complete manuscripts in electronic format is the ability to spur the development of unique databases and search engines that could support queries of complete articles rather than queries of abstract or keyword content alone. The development of large archival repositories, as required by the Open Access Publishing model, may lead to an expansion of new methodologies for literature searching and retrieval. Just as GenBank enabled computational and genomic biology, Open Access archives may lead to novel uses of its stored information. As the size of literature repositories grows, one can envision the rise of novel search methods enabling unique modes of literature access and novel knowledge synthesis. Although I am not aware, as of yet, of any complete article search engines, one can compare this potential development to the development of the on-line database of the Human Genome Project. The sequencing and open-access storage of the data generated by many world-wide labs led to a revolution in the development of unique data-bases and comparison/retrieval strategies of the information. In essence, by accumulating the raw data, the scientific community was spurred on to develop novel methods of information retrieval and assimilation. I think a similar situation will occur by the Open Access archiving of complete journal manuscripts.

The potential of Open Access publications to be used in derivative works, essentially a new piece of work that uses substantial parts of the original in a novel presentation, is especially interesting. As an example, one could create a derivative work by expanding an Open Access article with the addition of new data and a novel interpretation to the original published work. By creating a piece in this way, by building upon the original, one is keeping an intricate link between the old and new, and is also creating an entity, which can be judged anew. By allowing such use, with proper acknowledgement of sources, information can be expanded and increased to the benefit of the original work. Such derivation of work can be compared to the open source software community, where novel code is modified and expanded further to create a greater utility than that of the original software. The idea of derivative works is novel in scientific publishing and it will be interesting to follow the development of this unique method of knowledge development.

Open Access Publishing is proving to be a viable alternative to for-profit publishing. It is the responsibility of both seasoned and beginning researchers to be aware of this publishing model as a method for reporting findings and to embrace and join the community of scientists that endeavours to push forward the ability to easily share and assimilate the growing body of scientific knowledge. To this end, I would like to see Hypothesis explore the potential for adopting an Open Access Publishing model.

Acknowledgements: I want to thank the anonymous reviewers of this manuscript for their questions and comments, which helped to clarify the ideas presented here.


1. Bethesda Statement on Open Access Publishing (, released on June 20 2003).

2. University of California, Office of Systemwide Library Planning, Seminar on Scholarly Communication and the UC Community (Fall, 2003; ar_presentation.ppt) Note: Original link has been removed, instead see pages of the University of California, Office of Scholarly Communication,

3. The Wellcome Trust, Economic analysis of scientific research publishing (2003; [the easiest access to this source is by internet]

4. J. A. Vernon, Applied Economics Letters. 10: 467 (2003).

5. An anonymous reviewer raised a valid point that large profit companies, such as publishing houses, have economic contributions such as employment opportunities, which would be disrupted if they were replaced by Open Access Publishing models. I would suggest that large profit is not a necessary component of providing employment opportunity. Furthermore, such a drastic change will not occur rapidly and given that a long time frame is needed for a substantial change in overall publishing practices, the industry will be able to maintain employment that is necessary to allow high standards of publishing to continue, at an equitable price.

6. Thomson ISI, The impact of open access journals (2004; -oa-journals.pdf).

7. (17 December 2002).

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