Right Points, Wrong Title…about Open Access


December 21, 2017 by Town Peterson

A recent commentary in the Chronicle of Higher Education offered interesting reflections on the state of “open access” as a movement in scholarly communications from two important figures in my own field (ecology/evolutionary biology), so I paid it careful attention. To be honest, I agree with 99% of what Suarez and McGlynn have to say and the recommendations that they offer. At the same time, the title of their piece was “The Fallacy of Open-Access Publication,” and they make several comments–mostly toward the beginning of the piece–that sound rather damning, e.g., “… that “open access” model that was supposed to offer a solution? It’s created new problems…” and “The adoption of open-access publication does not eradicate the paywall, but instead moves the cost burden in front of researchers themselves.” Yet damning open-access wholesale was evidently not their intention, the danger here being that it can lead the uninitiated astray at a crucial moment when the very structure of unfettered access to the Internet itself is in jeopardy.

By the latter half of the commentary, Suarez and McGlynn clarify their points, and make some cogent and reasonable recommendations. Again, I agree with almost all of those points (I could live without the peer-review-for-pay suggestion, though!). However—and this is a big however—the authors have made a rather serious error in confounding one open access model with the open access model. There are many open access models:

  • Green open access involves publishing wherever, but retaining enough rights to be able to make a copy of the piece openly available. Many examples on hundreds of institutional digital repositories, such as KU Scholarworks.
  • Hybrid open access involves paying to open access to papers in closed access journals. This model has become popular among journals published by big, commercial enterprises (for example, in the prestigious journal Biological Conservation), though it is generally seen as double-dipping by the publishers, and at rather ridiculous and brazen rates (opening access to a paper in Biological Conservation costs USD$3400).
  • Gold open access is publishing in fully open journals–in some “gold” cases, publishing there indeed involves paying article processing charges. Gold open access journals may be run by commercial enterprises, such as Bio-Med Central, or by not-for-profit organizations, such as the Public Library of Science; some are for pay at unbelievable rates (e.g., Nature Communications, at USD$5200), and others are reasonable or free (Emerging Infectious Diseases).
  • Platinum open access is publishing in fully open journals that are also entirely free of any charges, thanks to subsidy from other sources, e.g., a scientific society, an institution; as such, platinum open access journals represent a subset of gold open access journals. A few have referred to this model as diamond open access, jumping over the usual intermediate level of platinum.

And there are all sorts of variants on these different models, such as the membership-based PeerJ, which offer further possible models.

By the latter half of their commentary, Suarez and McGlynn make more appropriate and nuanced comments about different forms and solutions to opening access, distinguishing between green and gold and platinum models. But their title and initial paragraphs come across very black-and-white, and show little appreciation for the details and nuances necessary to treat this crucial and emerging movement (open access) properly. Of course, before this commentary blows up into a major conflict, I reiterate that I agree with almost all of their points, once they get around to laying them out in detail. I merely offer these comments as a way to help us work together more effectively towards a solution to this complex problem. Navigating the way forward will be challenging enough without confusing our semaphores.


One thought on “Right Points, Wrong Title…about Open Access

  1. Town,

    I agree with all your points (including the critiques of our own article). The title and opening points of the article were intended to grab attention. I hoped to draw in readers that are overwhelming pro open access without considering some the negative consequences that have resulted from high publishing costs that many journals (even non-for profit ones) charge. This is especially a problem for students and scientists at universities in countries that do not have the luxury of seeking large grants to pay for publication costs.

    I try to publish open access when ever possible and make pdfs available on my web site (which is horrible outdated) or through google scholar. However, I realized that the cost of publishing three papers in PloS ONE (or equivalent) over the last few years could instead have been used to place a student on an RA for a semester.

    We are obviously very pro open access ourselves. We hope that this article will encourage societies to take the lead by championing open access models (whether green or platinum) while keeping publishing costs low. We also wanted to motivate scientists to increase communication with one another – emailing someone for a reprint is a great way to encourage that.

    Thanks for sharing your thoughts and your blog!



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The opinions here emerge from work done by OA advocates at our university in the Midwest. The opinions are those of the authors themselves and not necessarily of our home institution.


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