Around 15 years ago, when I was still an undergraduate student, I’m willing to bet if you asked most chemists (and probably other scientists) what they thought of “open access” journals, they would have scoffed. They would have said that the open access journals were predatory journals looking to make money off of publishing anything without appropriate peer review. People who were trained in those times (and the years before) still tend to hesitate when they hear the words “open access”, but the world of publishing is changing and the bad connotations are starting to fade away.
In 2008, the National Institutes of Health (NIH) established a Public Access Policy which is essentially a mandate for open access publication of all research funded by the NIH. Although the policy does not require publishing in an open access journal, it requires authors to deposit their peer-reviewed publications at PubMed Central, a free-to-the-public repository. Many times the articles on PubMed are in the accepted form before final formatting of the journal. However, the sentiment is consistent — if taxpayer money is used to fund the research, then they should have access to the results. In addition to the lay public having access to the results, free publications are very beneficial for small companies, researchers from poorer countries, and academics at smaller institutions without large subscribing libraries. I don’t think anyone would argue that access to literature is essential to performing great research.
So now that we have these archived publications at PubMed, why do we need open access journals? Well, not all research is funded by the NIH so not every research group is required to deposit their work. To combat this, many journals have the option of selecting open access after acceptance so anyone can read the article on the publisher’s website. So why doesn’t everyone publish articles that are freely accessible to everyone? It is the cost of open access publication that tends be the greatest barrier. (And for some, I’m sure, it is the prestige of publishing in journals associated with certain scientific societies with large impact factors and established reputations.) An open access manuscript can cost anywhere from $300-$5000, on average of around $3500 – that’s a lot when you could be paying an undergraduate researcher for the summer or purchasing consumables and chemicals necessary for the research or traveling to a conference to present your findings. If we want to be committed to sharing our research with the broader public, we have to be willing (and able) to pay. Many people are writing publications costs into their grant proposals, at the expense of other budget lines. University libraries are having major discussions with publishing agencies about the amount of money they spend on subscriptions when researchers are paying open access fees.
I am lucky to be at an institution that supports publication of research by faculty and students and has enough money to support open access when necessary. There was a call for articles in a special issue of Nanomaterials that Mike Leopold, Will Case, and I thought would be a great place for publication of our work (I should say Najwa Labban’s, Ciara Steele’s, Tess Munoz’s, and Mulugeta Wayu’s work) on a galactose biosensor for galactosemia. The Dean’s office and chemistry department were gracious enough to split the open access fee. And here it is published last week*! This is my first official open access article** and I’m very happy that you will all be able to read it without a paywall. Enjoy!
*Note: the reviews for this article were complete and thoughtful and we didn’t just slide to publication without critical review.
**Note: I’m not saying that open access articles are better than non-open access. I just want people to know about the options that are out there… and to not scoff at any of them.