The dark side of open access


November 30, 2018 by Town Peterson

Guest post by Daniel Romero-Alvarez
Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology and Biodiversity Institute
University of Kansas, Lawrence, Kansas, United States


A Spanish language version of this text is available at

Science is an always-evolving endeavor that accumulates information from reality to build evidence-based theories that allow us to understand our surroundings; it is about curiosity and solving problems, and ultimately permits and enables the luxuries of our daily lives. However, the journey from a discovery to an idea becoming part of our collective knowledge involves a series of obstacles that goes beyond experiments or research, and includes multiple less-known entities such as journals, publishers, and, as always, money.

After a discovery is made, researchers report their findings to the broader scientific community and ultimately to the world. To do so, they usually submit a ‘well-written’ paper to an international, peer-reviewed, indexed scientific journal. At the journal, the manuscript is ‘peer-reviewed,’ which is to say that the editors of the journal select two or three experts in the topic to evaluate the quality of the manuscript and determine if their findings are of sufficient quality to merit publication. Depending on the reviewers’ comments, the editors decide if the manuscript should be accepted, reviewed and changed, or rejected. An important point is that the work of the external reviewers and the editors is granted to the journal for free, despite the time and effort involved.

When accepted, the manuscript must be formatted to the journal’s style and further processed for printing, permanent online storage, and distribution. These article-processing steps have a cost, and depending on who is paying, the article will be handled differently. If the paper is free of cost to the authors, then the journal owners charge readers and academic institutions for accessing articles (“restricted” or “toll” access). The price for access to individual articles varies from US$10-50, and large research institutions generally spend on the order of US$4-5 million yearly to provide full access to their researchers and students [1]. When authors pay for these costs up front (as “article processing charges” or APCs), articles can be made fully open to readers (“gold” open access); however, authors generally must pay US$1200-5000 for publishing an article, although a substantial part of this fee may actually go to the publisher as profit. When neither authors nor readers have to pay for article processing, it is because some institution or scientific society is covering the cost, in which case publishing is free for authors and access is also free for readers (“platinum” open access).

The money paid for scholarly publishing of journal articles, either in the form of subscriptions for readers or of APCs, goes directly to the journal owners (the publisher). The most important scientific journals in the world (e.g., Science and Nature), and the most impactful in particular fields on inquiry, are owned in large part by a small number of publishers, including Springer-Nature, Elsevier, Wiley-Blackwell, etc. The profitable business of science publishing can be appreciated considering that Elsevier alone owns 2386 between hybrid and open access journals from where197 (8.3%) are platinum open access. Considering the journals using APCs in US$ currency (i.e., 2085 journals), charges per article have an average of US$2543 (ranging from US$65 to US$5200); in 2017 Elsevier published approximately 27000 open access articles from a total of 430000 publications [2]. And this is just one example [3]. None of this profit is returned to the scientific world, the author, or the agencies that funded the research.

From a historical perspective, toll access was the mainstream. Libraries and academic institutions were the source of access to scientific literature, and only top researchers could access the most important and current information. However, the explosion of information accessibility via the Internet set the stage for the development of open access models, which have expanded dramatically in recent years. The open access movement proceeded rapidly—among various solutions, one that appears to be assuming special importance is that of shifting the responsibility of paying for articles from readers to authors. That is, now, researchers often need to cover publication charges (gold open access), which although removed barriers for scholars worldwide wishing to read and explore the scientific literature, lifted an unexpected wall for authors publishing their findings.

One characteristic of developed countries is their scientific capacity. For example, China, France, Germany, Great Britain, Japan, and United States, are countries that contribute directly to the vanguard of knowledge on a daily basis. They can afford it because private institutions and the government are directly involved in research funding with considerable budgets. Thus, for first world researchers, to pay ~US$2000 per article is a matter of adding a new item in their budget request, and is considered part of the basic business of science. However, developing countries lack the budget and governmental commitment to funding scientific institutions or the research enterprise; thus, scientist in many countries (such as Ecuador, Venezuela, or Cuba) struggle just to keep their scientists performing experiments and doing research at all, let alone reporting their discoveries in journals dominated by publishers.

Researchers must report their findings to the broader community of scientists, however. If they cannot afford to pay the ~US$2000 fee for international journals, then they publish their work in local journals. These journals are generally less known than international journals, and the knowledge generated will take longer to be read and appreciated, or missed and ignored in the worst case. Thus, when in August 2017, Wiley Publishers decided to move an important scientific journal in conservation and ecology, Diversity and Distributions, from toll access to gold open access via charging authors US$2200 per article, without consulting the scientists involved in the editorial team of the journal, much less without consulting the broader community, researchers in the field were furious.

Wiley’s decision was most likely taken to assure profit in their enterprise. The growth of open access has begun to erode profits deriving from toll access models, such that Wiley surely was looking into the future. Currently, Wiley owns 97 open access journals, of which 7 are platinum open access; for the other 90, however, APCs average US$2249, ranging from US$500 to US$5000 [4]. Again, none of that money returns to science, nor are the hundreds of hours freely invested by reviewers and editors remunerated in any way, even though they constitute the true core of the scholarly journal publishing system.

Town Peterson, a professor at the University of Kansas, led development of an open letter of disagreement that was signed by 258 professors, young researchers, and students worldwide condemning the publisher’s decision, and offering a caution to Wiley that inappropriate behavior on the publisher’s part could lead to a boycott as regards publishing, editing, and reviewing for Diversity and Distributions [5]. The editor-in-chief of the journal, Janet Franklin, making use of her academic freedom, invited Peterson and others to develop a commentary about the situation for publication in the same journal. As a result, Wiley-Blackwell decided to continue with the open access plan but promised to offer “waivers” to every scientist asking for it, which was stated as: “Ability to pay the APC should not be a barrier to the publication of important science. Authors without funding for publication charges will be provided with a waiver of the APC…” Note that this was a promise – not a contract – but one that is expected to endure the test of time.

Meanwhile, a commentary entitled “Open access solutions for biodiversity journals: Do not replace one problem with another” was submitted to Diversity and Distributions for publication, went through the journal’s normal commentary review process, and was accepted. However, before its publication, Wiley’s Vice President for Editorial Management labeled the submission as “out of scope” and suggested that the points raised were not suitable to be discussed in the journal. As an immediate and direct consequence, the Editor in Chief and the majority of the associate editors resigned from their positions, out of concern for the editorial independence necessary for a journal of this stature. Wiley management has since emphasized that it did not intend to censor the paper, and that it does intend to permit its publication in Diversity and Distributions.

The publication of this commentary in the scientific literature will become a snapshot of the convoluted scholarly publishing system of this moment in time, wherein the scientific endeavor must answer to the profit of publishers, and in which scientists are beginning to combine their voices to figure in the future of the journals that exist only thanks to them. If anything, this interchange between Wiley and the researcher community will highlight some important points: that the status quo of science publishing is changing as researchers stand together to claim their rightful place as gatekeepers of knowledge. The case of Diversity and Distributions is a clear example of obstacles faced by countless scientific discoveries; likely, many important scientific insights are already in the ocean of information waiting to be noticed, cited, interpreted, or published. Subscription costs and APCs restrict access for less-prosperous researchers, isolating them from the big picture of academia.

There was a time when access was the chief restriction for development of science; thanks to the long-term ‘guerrilla access’ movement [6], however, this problem has been improved in many senses. Now, it is time to go beyond reading access to consider author access as a priority as well. Publishers are not going to depict this problem clearly: for example, Wiley initially announced shift of Diversity and Distributions to APC-based gold open access as that the journal “… will become free to read, download and share for all. This exciting development will place the journal at the forefront of open science in the community,” without a word or a thought on how a transition of this kind could harm authors. Hopefully, the controversy about this shift will shed light on the dark side of open access, and help the public and other researchers to be aware of the waves of change that will have to be navigated if the community is to improve the current ways of scientific discovery.


  1. Townsend Peterson provided insightful comments for the final version of the text and led the academic stand for this case. All the associate editors of Diversity and Distributions for their discussion, time and transparent position during the conundrum. “Stories circle” narrative group at The University Kansas provided early feedback during the development of the text.

Updates (Dec 6, 2018):

Wiley’s Statement on Interference Accusations

Open Access Directory. Following journal declaration of independence

Updates (Jan 12th, 2019)

The manuscript ‘Open access solutions for biodiversity journals: Do not replace one problem with another,’ was finally published in Diversity and Distributions journal.

Wiley published their own ‘official explanation’ of the situation as a response of the above manuscript, which can be reviewed here:


1.- SPARC. Journal Pricing. Available at: Accessed November 25, 2018.

2.- Elsevier (2018). Open Access Price List. Available at: Accessed November 25, 2018.

3.- Van Noorden, R. (2013). Open access: The true cost of science publishing. Nature, 495, 426-429.

4.- Wiley-Blackwell (2018). Wiley Open Access Journals Licensing and APCs. Available at: Accessed November 25, 2018.

5.- A. Townsend Peterson. To the Editors, Diversity and Distributions, and Wiley Publishers (letter). Available at: Accessed November 25, 2018.

6.- Himmelstein, D. S., Romero, A. R., Levernier, J. G., Munro, T. A., McLaughlin, S. R., Tzovaras, B. G., & Greene, C. S. (2018). Sci-Hub provides access to nearly all scholarly literature. eLife, 7, e32822.





One thought on “The dark side of open access

  1. […] Por Daniel Romero-Alvarez, @Vakdaro Una versión en inglés ha sido publicada acá […]


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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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