Arguments and Reservations

Arguments for Open Access

Video about Open Access. (CC BY 3.0 DE)
Source: Brinken, H., Hauss, J. &  Rücknagel, J. (2021). Open Access in 60 seconds, open-access.network. https://doi.org/10.5446/50832

The key takeaways from this article are

1

There are numerous arguments in favour of open access.

2

However, there are also doubts and reservations.

3

Many reservations can be dispelled with good counter-arguments.

Arguments for Open Access

Information published open access is immediately accessible to, and easily findable online by, all researchers, students, and professionals, and by the interested public worldwide. Open access contributions are often published more quickly than in the conventional publishing system. Open access works are available to everyone, irrespective of financial resources and research location, because, unlike closed access works, they may be used free of charge. Therefore, open access can contribute to reducing the digital divide in research.

Many research funding organisations have incorporated open access provisions into their funding guidelines. The grant agreements stipulate that scientific publications that result from funded projects must be made available to the public in open access and must be reusable. In this way, it is ensured that results from research projects that are publicly funded with taxpayers’ money can also be used by the public.

Through open access, the results of publicly funded research are freely available online and reusable. Hence, research performing organisations do not have to buy them (back) from publishers.

Open access contributions have much greater visibility than contributions that are not freely available online. Their cost-free availability worldwide leads to increased use, which in turn leads to higher citation frequency. A number of empirical studies have shown that open access publications enjoy a sometimes considerable citation advantage compared with closed access publications (Piwowar et al., 2018; Langham-Putrow et al., 2021). Other, older studies on the open access citation advantage can be found in an overview provided by SPARC Europe. 

The main advantages of open access are often described with the terms “visibility” and “impact”. Visibility refers to the probability that a publication will be noticed and disseminated; impact refers to the long-term reception of the publication and the incorporation of the results into further research work and scholarly debate. Together, visibility and impact contribute to the reputation of authors and their institutions.

Open access publications promote the global networking of research activities. Moreover, the free availability and reusability of open access content worldwide enables people in poorer countries to access and use relevant scientific information. Open access publishers that are funded through publication fees often waive these charges in the case of researchers from poorer countries.

The timely international publication of research findings promotes cooperation among researchers and accelerates the research process. Moreover, authors of open access publications receive immediate feedback from their peers worldwide.

Open access publications enjoy the same copyright protections as other publications. In publishing agreements, authors grant the publishers only a non-exclusive right of use. Thus, they retain the right to exploit their works themselves.

Moreover, open licences such as Creative Commons licences enable authors to specify further rights of use themselves, to share their content under internationally standardised terms and conditions, and to keep further publication options open. Compared with transferring all exploitation rights to the publisher, which is the norm in conventional publishing agreements, open access thus has clear advantages for authors.

When documents are self-archived in repositories, their long-term preservation is assured. This is not the case when they are made available on the author’s personal website. Long-term access to the text is guaranteed technically by assigning a persistent identifier (e.g. DOI, URN) that is independent of the concrete storage location of the document. As yet, many scholarly authors do not archive their works reliably and on a long-term basis. As a consequence, the results are lost to their research institutions, and responsibility for their long-term preservation lies solely with the publishers. However, parallel storage in open access repositories helps to ensure long-term accessibility. Because of the usage licences under which they are made available, genuinely open access publications can also be archived by third parties without separate permission. This is a further safeguard against loss.

Repositories such as arXiv make research findings available as preprints before peer review and formal publication. In this way, research results enter into circulation more quickly and can be discussed and assessed. Swan (2010) attributed the high citation figures of open access publications to, among other things, their rapid availability. She termed this phenomenon the “early advantage”.

Open access supports the information supply technically because the possibility of direct online access means that procurement effort and time losses are avoided. On the other hand, in view of the growing share of freely accessible publications, it is becoming increasingly easier to quickly obtain comprehensive information on the current state of research.

Since the mid-1990s, rising costs of subscriptions to closed access journals have placed a burden on library budgets. This has led to an undersupply of scholarly journals –  the so-called serials crisis. As a result, many journals are no longer available from libraries. Because open access aims to make scholarly knowledge freely available and reusable worldwide, such supply gaps do not occur in the case of open access publications.

Because of their restricted accessibility and reusability, closed access publications are not well suited to the demands of digital science, which relies on networking, the enrichment of information, automated analyses, and text and data mining. By contrast, open access enables barrier-free access to information within networked research environments and workflows, and it is therefore an important infrastructural prerequisite for digital science.

When authors publish a work, they announce a research result, identify themselves with it, and vouch for the content and the scholarly quality of the publication. The publication date is of essential importance in terms of documenting scientific priority, for example in the case of a discovery or an invention (Werner, 2010).

Preprints, in particular, offer various advantages when it comes to establishing priority. Authors can save time by making a preprint version of the work available in an open access repository. In this way, they avoid priority problems in the event of the rejection of the manuscript by a journal and the further delay that this causes.

Because open access publications are available without access restrictions, the full texts are also findable via search engines such as Google or Google Scholar. As a rule, they are indexed by means of metadata, abstracts, and keywords, which is why they are findable via international search engines and library catalogues immediately after publication. Thus, optimal visibility and scientific impact can be achieved. Moreover, the relevance of these publications for specific research questions can be directly examined. This also contributes to transparency in science and scholarship.

Dispelling Reservations About Open Access

Quality Concerns

Reservation: Lack of Reputation

Some authors fear that open access contributions will not receive proper recognition, which could negatively impact performance evaluation and applications for funding and could therefore be detrimental to their academic careers (Olejniczak & Wilson, 2020). One possible reason given for this is that open access journals are not well established and that they lack reputation.

 

Counter-Arguments

This fear, which was articulated especially in the early days of open access publishing, is visibly waning because the reputation of scholarly journals generally increases over time. By now, the once new open access journals have published several volumes and are well established. In 2012, PLOS ONE became the first open access journal to receive the highest share of all citations (1.3% based on Web of Science data); it replaced the closed access journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America (PNAS) at the top of the table (Geschuhn et al., 2013). Moreover, quality concerns relate only to one of the two open access strategiesgold open access. In the case of green open access, the work in question has usually been published in a closed access journal and is then self-archived in a freely accessible repository. Hence, concerns on the part of the author that their reputation will suffer as a result of publishing open access are unfounded in this case. Because these reservations do not relate to open access per se, but rather to the status of relatively new journals, they are also unfounded when established closed access journals are converted to open access.


Reservation: Lack of Quality Assurance

Although only about a quarter of open access journals are (partially) funded through article processing charges, it is sometimes alleged that these charges corrupt quality assurance. It is argued that because journals that use this model earn money from every published article, quality assurance through rigorous peer review is less important to them than revenue from article processing charges (Conticello, 2021).

The fact is ignored that closed access journals also use article processing charges and are therefore also subject to the same mechanisms. Moreover, studies have regularly revealed questionable quality assurance at highly renowned closed access journals.

Generally speaking, there is no connection between the reputation of a journal and the underlying business model. Thus, high and low quality can be found equally among commercial and non-commercial publishers and journals, and among fee-based and cost-free offerings. Furthermore, like the editors of any other journals, the editors of open access journals are interested in high-quality contributions because high quality naturally attracts a broader range of authors and low quality is a competitive disadvantage. Hence, numerous open access journals have within a short period of time achieved Journal Impact Factors comparable to those of closed access journals (Björk & Solomon, 2012). 

The open access movement has even contributed to the testing and establishment of new quality assurance procedures for scholarly publications, for example open peer review and altmetrics.


Reservation: Repositories Do Not Have Quality Standards

There are also concerns regarding the quality of the documents deposited in disciplinary and institutional repositories.

The versions of articles made available in institutional and disciplinary repositories are often limited to post-prints. In other words, self-archiving (green open access) constitutes additional access to a conventional publication, where the original version has already successfully undergone peer review and has been accepted for publication by a journal or a publisher, and thus the quality of the contribution can be considered assured. Occasionally, uncertainties may also arise regarding the authenticity of documents made available in repositories – for example, uncertainty as to whether a document actually has already been formally published with a publisher, or as to how it should be cited. The latter question is easily answered: When citing the work, the bibliographic details of the publisher’s version are used and are supplemented with a link to the open access version.

The quality of preprints and working papers is subject to discussion within the discipline and to self-regulation mechanisms in the scientific community. Final theses, for example post-doctoral and doctoral dissertations, usually meet high quality standards.

Findability Issues

Reservation: Inferior Findability of Open Access Publications

Authors of open access content want to be sure that their works are findable and readable, and that they will remain substantively unchanged in the long term. 

Counter-Arguments

Repository operators and the editors of open access journals take account of these requirements. To ensure findability, the documents themselves are not only stored securely and in the long term, they are also linked to searchable metadata. In repositories, the request and retrieval of metadata is ensured via an OAI-PMH interface. As a rule, both open access journals and open access repositories make standardised metadata available, so that the findability of open access publications is at least as good as that of closed access publications.

Moreover, open access publications can be self-archived in different locations. This means that open access publications are found, for example, via search engines such as Google or Google Scholar. Moreover, there is also a search engine especially for open access publications, namely, the Bielefeld Academic Search Engine (BASE), which also harvests texts from repositories.

Long-Term Preservation of Documents

Reservation: Open Access Publications Are Not Available in the Long Term

It frequently happens that documents that are found on the Internet are no longer findable after a few weeks, months, or years. This common experience gives rise to concern about the long-term availability of the content.

Counter-Arguments

Closed access and open access documents are equally affected by the problem of digital volatility. To ensure the long-term availability of the documents, it is expedient for publishers, journals, or repositories to cooperate with national libraries or other providers of long-term preservation services. With regard to long-term preservation in the context of providing open access to publications that have been formally published with a publisher (green open access), it is preferable to self-archive the works in a repository rather than depositing them on a website.

Compared with using a repository, making works available to the public on websites is not secure in the long term. If the author changes organisation, or if changes are made to the website, this usually leads to the loss of the information in the short or medium term. By contrast, repositories ensure long-term preservation of their documents, inter alia through the long-term affiliation of the repository with a research providing organisation, the assignment of persistent identifiers such as DOIs, or the conversion of documents to a format suitable for long-term preservation. The DINI Certificate for repositories also includes requirements for the long-term availability of documents.

Legal Reservations

Reservation: Exploitation Rights Are Difficult to Handle

Some authors foresee difficulties in handling their exploitation rights when self-archiving their works in repositories. This concern relates to potentially competing exploitation rights in cases where a contribution has already been published in a journal, or where publication is intended at a later date. Moreover, authors want to retain control over the later reuse of their work by others.

Counter-Arguments

These and similar reservations can usually be dispelled. Information and recommendations in this regard can be found under Legal Questions.

Financial Viability of the Author-Pays Model

Reservation: Open Access Is More Expensive

A frequently discussed criticism of gold open access is the cost. Is the author-pays model actually financially viable (Chiodelli, 2021)? This also raises the question of the costs that open access offerings actually involve, and how these costs compare with the costs of individual publications in the traditional publishing system.

Counter-Arguments

It is not possible to give an unequivocal answer here. The costs of organising peer review are probably comparable in both cases (Grossmann & Brembs, 2021). However, compared with the traditional publishing system, the concrete cost structures of open access publishers are very different and very difficult to compare. Taking all economic factors into account, Houghton (2009) concluded that open access was most strongly associated with economic benefits and was therefore the most cost-effective mechanism for scholarly publishing – irrespective of whether it was gold or green.

Moreover, various studies have shown that, in overall economic terms, open access can lead indirectly to savings in access costs, labour costs, and transaction costs (Fell, 2019). It should be noted that many open access journals do not levy article processing charges (platinum open access). Moreover, these charges are often paid from institutional funds or by research funding organisations, or they are part of efforts to return control of the publication process to the scientific community (Fair Open Access).

There is no doubt that the cost burden at individual universities and non-university research providing organisations is changing. When the financial burden is shifted from users to authors, research-intensive institutions with a high publication output have to pay more, relatively speaking, than universities and non-university research organisations whose members publish less (Swan & Houghton, 2012).


Reservation: Article Processing Charges Are Too High

Not all researchers find it easy to pay article processing charges from their research funds or other sources. This touches on social, research, and university policy issues (Olejniczak & Wilson, 2020):

  • On the one hand, there are authors who are not affiliated with a scientific institution, and on the other hand, there are authors who belong to an institution that subsidises article processing charges.
  • Humanities and social science disciplines are usually less well funded than the STM disciplines and cannot rely on cross-subsidisation. 
  • Authors from developing countries cannot usually afford to pay the article processing charges.

Solutions for these problems are sometimes found when universities, for example with support from the German Research Foundation (DFG) and its programme “Open Access Publication Funding”, establish publication funds from which open access publication charges incurred by their members can be paid. Agreements concluded by consortia of institutions with open access publishers to obtain discounts for authors are one way of reducing publication charges. Crowdfunding models whereby institutions or their libraries come together to jointly finance publications have also become established (see Business Models for Journals). An overview of alternative open access models is provided by Oberländer and Dreher (2019).

Most open access publishers and journals now grant authors from developing countries special conditions and fee waivers (Lawson, 2015).

Time Expended by Researchers

Reservation: Open access is time-consuming

Researchers want to spend as little time as possible on self-archiving their works. In this connection, there are reservations with regard to the time that self-archiving takes.

Counter-Arguments

Anyone who, besides practically carrying out self-archiving, also engages with the technology of good archiving, will generally invest more time at first. Professionally maintained disciplinary and institutional repositories offer ways of getting around this. Libraries are increasingly responding to the justified concerns about the time that self-archiving takes by offering university members the option of delegating the task to the university repositories.

 

References

Further Reading