Open Access Publishing: the complete RHM blog series

26/11/2012 § Leave a comment

Louise Finer, Managing Editor, Reproductive Health Matters

Blog one – What is Open Access and how far has it spread?

Since the launch of the Open Access Initiative in Budapest in 2002, sponsored by the Open Society Institute, its proponents have sought to keep momentum in the academic, publishing and political spheres towards the fulfilment of a declaration of principles, and celebrated the 6th “Open Access week” on 22-28 October 2012. Reflecting on some of the discussions held during Open Access week, this blog series looks at how Open Access has evolved, its implications for publishing in general and, in particular, for Reproductive Health Matters.

The idea behind Open Access is that in the age of the internet, peer-reviewed journal papers should become a public good, with free and unrestricted access to them for all. The Open Access “movement” was consolidated in response to the rapid development of internet and digital technology, as well as growing concerns about the inaccessibility of printed scholarly literature. According to its proponents, the removal of “access barriers” will “accelerate research, enrich education, share the learning of the rich with the poor and the poor with the rich, make this literature as useful as it can be, and lay the foundation for uniting humanity in a common intellectual conversation and quest for knowledge”. Open Access means “free availability on the public internet, permitting any users to read, download, copy, distribute, print, search, or link to the full texts of these articles, crawl them for indexing, pass them as data to software, or use them for any other lawful purpose, without financial, legal, or technical barriers other than those inseparable from gaining access to the internet itself”. Authors should be given control over the integrity of their work and be properly acknowledged and cited, but any other constraints on reproduction and distribution would no longer be acceptable.

There are two approaches to Open Access online publishing:

“Gold” Open Access is when papers are published by journals which do not charge a subscription fee but do charge authors or their institutions a fee to publish their papers. See for example, PLOS.

“Green” Open Access is when papers published in journals that do charge a subscription are subsequently self-archived by authors in an online repository (complying with any conditions set by the journal that originally published the paper). See, for example, UCL Discovery. A directory of Open Access repositories can be found here.

According to the initial statement of principles, these two Open Access strategies should be complementary.

How far has Open Access spread?

According to the Open Society Foundations, Open Access is now mandated by over 300 research funders and institutions worldwide. Information published by the ROARMAP  registry of Open Access repositories shows these are primarily – though not exclusively – situated in Europe, followed by North America. The US National Institutes for Health (NIH) set new ground in 2008 by adopting a Public Access Policy  requiring that all papers based on NIH-funded research be made publicly accessible through the digital archive PubMed Central no later than 12 months after official publication. Similarly, the UK-based Wellcome Trust requires papers based on any research they fund in whole or in part to be available through a PubMed Central repository.

As of 2011 approximately 17% of scholarly journal articles are now made openly available on the internet through Gold Open Access journals. While initially Open Access publishing was driven largely by scientific and professional associations, universities and individual researchers, nowadays commercial and new so-called “professional non-commercial” publishers have overshadowed these. Online-only journals have sustained stronger growth in providing Open Access content, while print journals that provide Open Access output have plateaued.

Regarding “green” Open Access repositories, institutions and funders at a recent discussion at Birkbeck College, University of London said that researchers’ compliance with self-archiving rules was far from complete. The Wellcome Trust, for example, recently acknowledged  that only 55% of research papers acknowledging its funding comply with their Open Access policy. It has announced efforts to strengthen enforcement (including withholding final grant payments and discounting non-compliant publications in future funding applications).


Blog two – Open Access: the flip side

Proponents of Open Access claim it is an “inevitable consequence” of the internet, yet it would be foolish to underestimate the implications for research, publishing and dissemination across the world.

The implications of Open Access fall into three main categories:
1. Costs and funding
Open Access is leading to a dramatic change in the economics of research publication and dissemination. Not being able to generate income from subscription fees, Open Access journals are increasingly charging authors “article processing” fees, to be paid either on submission or on acceptance of an article for publication. Research shows that article processing fees range from USD 20 to USD 3,800, with an average of approximately USD 900. Because of the number of different publication models it is difficult to determine exactly what proportion of journals currently charge article processing fees, but research does show that of 4,319 online-only Open Access journals published in 2011, 42% levied fees. It is easily conceivable that with the growth in online Open Access publishing, the practice of charging author fees may spread further. Among those that already charge are some major players in scholarly publication, and research shows the link between high impact factors and high article processing charges. In this way, it appears that Open Access is merely shifting the costs of publishing from subscribers to authors.
To make things more complicated, a “hybrid Open Access” model has also emerged, whereby subscription journals publish articles according to their normal terms and conditions, but allow authors to make their work “Open Access” on payment of a fee. The American Journal of Public Health is one such example. One study reports uptake of this model at 2%.

Some research funders, such as Wellcome in the UK, have stated their commitment to including additional funding to cover article processing fees in their grants, but anyone without such funding would have to pay out of pocket to get their work into the public domain. This is highly likely to discriminate against authors from the global South, whose institutions are less likely to be able to cover such fees, as well as anyone conducting independent research, or working in poorly funded fields. Furthermore, money available for research itself may be reduced by the need to pay article processing fees – either because the research funder chooses to allocate money from its overall budget to this purpose, or because the institution receiving the money decides to spend funding from research grants on these fees.

Some journals are attempting to mitigate these problems for researchers from the global South. The International Journal for Equity in Health, for example, states that it “routinely” waives charges for authors from low-income countries, and allows a limited number of waivers at editors’ discretion. Good intentions notwithstanding, such policies place the onus on the author from a low-income country to ask to be treated as an exception. Furthermore, the criteria for this exception could easily miss out other needy researchers, such as those in the rest of the world working in poorly funded NGOs and institutions. Finally, the very fact of having to ask to be considered for a ‘waiver’ is demeaning and likely to discourage authors.

Regarding the Green Open Access model, the costs and technological requirements of setting up a repository should also not be overlooked.

2. Standards
Some argue that generating income through authors paying Open Access fees rather than subscription costs inevitably provides a greater incentive for publishers to accept work that may not meet rigorous quality standards. Perceptions that Open Access content is inferior to content behind paywalls or in print journals are certainly widespread.

Furthermore, if setting up or running a journal becomes an attractive profit-making enterprise rather than a means to advance scholarship, it is quite conceivable that private actors with specific agendas (such as pharmaceutical companies) will seek to do so, as a way to wield greater influence. Some traditional scholarly publishers have expressed concern that Open Access undermines their ability to generate income through subscription costs, which they see as crucial to the wider scholarly activities and publishing processes (including peer-reviewing processes) that maintain high academic standards.

3. Distribution and access
Open Access is predicated on access to the internet, and undoubtedly makes promotion of published research via social media much easier. Although making far greater amounts of information available to those with internet access, including those without institutional affiliations, the prioritisation of virtual over print publication inevitably restricts availability to those without access to the internet. Influenced by the advent of Open Access, funding priorities are shifting away from supporting printing costs, making it increasingly hard to find resources for printing, even if this is in many areas the only or the best way of disseminating research again particularly in the global South.

Thus, there is a big gulf between the potential and the actual possibility of achieving fully free access to journals and articles for authors and readers via Open Access.


Blog three: the meaning of Open Access for RHM

The third in our blog series on Open Access publishing see first and second blogs.

Open Access has undoubtedly been a game-changer for traditional publishing. Questions are being widely asked about the role and responsibilities of publishers and journals in this new scenario, and politically, the commercial interests of publishers have proved sensitive[1].

Like many journals, RHM is reflecting on its own place within this rapidly changing panorama, but for us, the discussion is quite different to most journals.

How RHM is currently published

Print version

–          In English: tiered subscription rates for institutions and individuals; free for developing country groups (86% of current readers).

–          In Arabic, Chinese, French, Hindi, Russian, Portuguese, Spanish: free for all readers.

 Online version

–          In English: free to print subscribers and to those with free subscriptions. Editorials and “article of the month” available free of charge. All     content available free after 3-year embargo period. Single articles available for purchase from Elsevier ($12 per article) or Science Direct ($31.50 per article). All content available from Science Direct as part of (paid-for) bundles of journals.

–          Post-embargo all content available through HINARI (WHO’s Health InterNetwork Access to Research Initiative database, for institutions in low income countries) and Jstor (tiered subscription for libraries and others).

–          In other languages: all content available free.


–          Elsevier distributes but does not own RHM and publishes RHM online. It gains income from subscriptions and downloads, and from a fee charged to RHM.

–          RHM accepts no payments for publication, actively seeks contributors from the developing world, and secures peer reviews free of charge.

–          Authors and peer reviewers receive free copies of the issue they contributed to. 

–          Bulk subscriptions are discounted.

RHM’s unique publishing model brings it in some ways very close to what is known as Open Access. Unlike most academic journals, RHM relies on external funding to support production, publication and dissemination. In addition to openly accessible online content, distributing free printed copies in the developing world ensures that RHM is widely read in places where traditional scholarly publishing is largely unavailable. Working closely with new authors and researchers to support them to be able to publish important research and analysis is at the core of RHM’s mission: the idea of charging “article processing fees” is inconceivable.

While at face value the principles of the Open Access movement appear to be in line with RHM’s outlook and current modus operandi, the practices of many journals implementing Open Access policies – charging authors to publish and lowering standards in particular – are at odds with RHM’s principles. The concern that the developments in Open Access will lead to new inequities among authors and researchers, lower standards, and greater influence from profit-making motives, is very real. Rather than getting swept up in a movement which in practice does not always live up to its aspirations, we believe RHM should defend its sui generis publishing model. In a context where donors are increasingly reluctant to fund free subscriptions of a journal to developing countries, RHM is committed to considering how its existing form of open access could become even more open and accessible than at present, but any changes must be aimed at further strengthening its reach rather than undermining its founding vision.

[1] A draft Act that would have required express consent from publishers for the dissemination of private sector research was presented to the US Congress in December 2011. This Act has been widely criticised as protecting publishers’ interests at the expense of democratising access to research findings. In response to the initial support of the publisher Elsevier to this Act, a petition to boycott them gathered nearly 13,000 signatures. Elsevier subsequently withdrew its support, and the Act has stalled.

Exploring Open Access: more places to look

ROARMAP provides a list of all the institutions worldwide that have registered “Open Access Repositories Mandatory Archiving Policies”.
DOAJ is a directory of Open Access journals.
OpenDOAR is a directory of Open Access repositories.
SHERPA/RoMEO is a directory of “hybrid Open Access” journals, i.e. those who do not charge for publishing an article according to normal terms, but allow authors to make published articles Open Access on the payment of a fee.
HINARI Access to Research in Health Programme database.

Other information and examples:
Wikipedia charts the history of the Open Access movement and has a useful analysis of related processes and evidence.
OpenAIRE, the European Commission’s Open Access portal gathers information on Open Access policies across the European Union.
PeerJ is a new Open Access journal for biological and medical sciences, which charges a lifetime membership fee rather than charging pay-per-publish fees. PeerJ secured $950,000 in start-up funding, and will support itself subsequently through membership fees.
eLife is a researcher-led digital journal, set up in collaboration between funders and researchers with the aim of “accelerat[ing] scientific advancement by promoting modes of communication whereby new results are made available quickly, openly, and in a way that helps others to build upon them”. All work is published under a Creative Commons Attribution Licence which allows use and re-use of all content providing the original source and authors are credited.
Feminists@law open access journal of legal scholarship editorial, “Why We Oppose Gold Open Access
Free Journals Act, the campaign for freely accessible scientific journals, supported by 154 journals worldwide.


Blog four: a view on Open Access publishing from Lebanon

By Jocelyn DeJong. Professor, Faculty of Health Sciences, American University of Beirut and Coordinator, Reproductive Health Working Group (Arab countries and Turkey); and Trustee of Reproductive Health Matters

As a researcher based in a middle income country, I would like to support the concerns raised by Louise Finer in blog two of this series.

While many of us welcome the advent of open-access publication and the principles it represents, there are problems in the implementation of open-access publishing as it is currently evolving. Before turning to some of these problems, however, it should be said that the status quo before the advent of open-access publications also had many deficiencies and was inequitable both in access to and production of knowledge. This status quo has meant that, although most international, peer-reviewed journals published by commercial publishers had become available electronically, there is strict legal regulation (due to international intellectual property protection) over their availability and circulation. We have also become accustomed to a publishing model where, typically, researchers and reviewers who do the bulk of work for such journals are unpaid, yet subscription prices are high and rising often making them inaccessible. In the region where I work, and indeed in most low and middle-income countries, only the more well-endowed universities are able to afford journal subscriptions. This has led to a situation where only individuals working in institutions which can afford the high cost of international peer-reviewed journals (such as my own) have access to new research findings. And even for students in universities that do have journal subscriptions, they lose the privilege of access to such journals upon graduation. They therefore start their professional lives – whether in Lebanon or in other countries – having been exposed to the value of research and having become eager to do research themselves but restricted in their access to new research. Individuals in non-governmental or community-based organisations typically also lack access to international, peer-reviewed journals and yet they are increasingly engaged in research or using information published in them.

Because of some of these problems encountered by researchers and teachers in this pre-open-access status quo, many have welcomed the advent of new approaches to publishing through open-access, with their potential to broaden access to new knowledge and insights to an international audience irrespective of socio-economic standing. The subsequent proliferation of open-access journals, however, has raised new challenges and questions, particularly when it comes to potential inequities in who can actually publish their work in such journals. I have noted increasing disenchantment among many observers and people working in the field who, in their experiences of open-access publishing to date, are left confused and concerned by the inequitable direction it appears to be going.

The first and foremost concern is that, as noted in the by Louise Finer, the cost of publication has effectively shifted from publisher to producer of knowledge or research. Most worrying is the advance payment necessary for authors to publish in open-access journals: typically either authors have to pay an advance fee for submitting an article to such a journal, or they have to pay a fee if their article is accepted. Such advance payments pose difficulties to many researchers, but put those in low and middle-income settings at a particular disadvantage. Some authors can include fees in research grants, if they have them, but this comes possibly at the expense of other research budget items. For many, the time period of research grants has finished when they are expected to pay the fees. In other cases, the funding organization may not allow the allocation of their funds to cover open-access fees. In some cases well-endowed universities subsidise researchers to pay these fees – but in my experience this is rarely the case in low and middle-income countries. Academic salaries in most low and middle income countries are certainly not high enough to allow academics to pay for the high costs of open-access publishing personally. The potential for inequities across countries and within countries between institutions (and even within institutions) immediately then becomes apparent. Moreover, to my knowledge there is rarely a sliding scale, allowing for this difference in the availability of resources for individual researchers.

Funders such as the Wellcome Trust (in the UK) and the National Institutes of Health (in the US) are committed to covering the costs necessary to make any research funded by these organisations open-access. My experience with Wellcome Trust funding at my institution is positive in that the Trust pays the publisher directly whenever an article is accepted. In this way, the researcher is insulated from having to make decisions about where to publish based on different costs and procedures, and can focus efforts on getting high quality research into a good journal. Moreover, the Wellcome Trust’s funding will include paying the fees to regular subscription journals to make particular articles open-access or to publishing in open-access journals. We must not forget, however, that most research taking place in low and middle income countries is not supported by such funders.

A further concern about the current state of open-access publishing is the lack of information or guidance to researchers about the best venues to publish in. Not a week passes that I do not receive an email about a new journal in my field inviting submissions and peer reviewers. We all know that open-access journals are proliferating, some probably for commercial motives, yet there is little guidance on how to assess their quality. Reviewing names on editorial boards is often not very informative if they are not known academics. Existing measures used to evaluate the quality of peer-reviewed journals such as the ‘impact factor’ , are inadequate, since they are based merely on the number of citations from articles published in them. Open-access journals may gain high impact factors because they are by their nature widely available and so articles published in them are often highly cited, but this tells us little about the quality of the article itself.

To conclude, I consider open-access to be a positive development in terms of making the most recent research available to a wide audience not dependent on one’s geographic position or socio-economic status. However, I am concerned that important questions remain, in particular about how accessible such publishing venues are for researchers from around the globe who may not be able to afford the often high associated costs. Thus while laudable in principle, I believe the current implementation of open-access publishing is flawed.


We welcome responses to these blogs from publishers, authors and institutions.

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