Funding bodies in the US and the UK are pressing scientists to publish their research in open access journals (1). Open access journals are free for readers. The reason behind this push is the conviction that publicly funded research should be freely available for the taxpayers who have financed it. The most common way in which open access journals work is by charging scientists the publishing costs of the articles that they want to circulate.

I was a supporter of the open access movement when it started years ago. With hind sight, I am starting to have second thoughts.

In theory open access is a noble idea; everyone gets access to high-quality scientific information. However, there are risks in forcing a business model where the paying customer is the entity interested in publishing and not the reader in search of enlightenment. In addition, the move to empower the public providing free access to science may have unintended consequences: When everything looks the same, when everything is for free, how to distinguish between real scientific journals and sham publications?

Sham journals that will publish anything for profit and organisations willing to pay in order to release flawed studies that support their particular agendas are flooding the web (2, 3). This doesn’t affect scientists who are capable of detecting flawed research with relative ease. Sham journals affect the public that the open access policy is aiming to help. Lay readers can be bamboozled by grand-sounding titles like “International Journal of Scientific Medicine”. Non-experts performing online research may not be up to the task of distinguishing credible research from junk.

A business model where journals strive on a strong readership base forces editors to make greater efforts selecting excellent scientific papers compared to a model that depends only on authors paying a fee. This is not saying that all open access journals are bad. PLoS Genetics is a well-regarded scientific journal and it is open access. What ultimately separates scientific journals from pseudoscientific magazines is tough peer review and honest editorial work.

Perhaps, instead of accustoming the lay public to get everything for free, alternatives to full-blown open access could be sought:

– Conditional open access (where journals release articles for free after a quarantine period that allows access only to subscription payers) underlines the value of scientific articles. And it works: When I was a student in a developing country I used to wait for articles in good journals (such as the Journal of Biological Chemistry) to be released.

– Pay as you read; Nature’s ReadCube is an excellent example of this method but its current prices are excessive.

– Libraries. The president of the Royal Society (and Nobel laureate) Sir Paul Nurse once reminisced in BBC Radio 4 “When I was a boy, if I read a book it was likely to say something sensible…” “We don’t have the same emphasis in editorial control any more”. When he was a boy, Sir Paul used to go to libraries. On-line libraries -offering access to prestigious journals- could be created by funding bodies that support open access policies.

Else, if we insist in an open access policy, Universities and funding bodies should take responsibility for the dangers associated with it. They should campaign to raise awareness and compile lists of reliable open access journals. For now, Beall’s List of Predatory Publishers 2013 (2) and others do the job of pin-pointing bad journals. But we cannot rely only on the efforts of isolated individuals fighting pseudoscience.


(1) Nature special issue “The future of publishing” 28 March 2013

(2) Beall’s List of Predatory Publishers 2013

(3) Let’s Blame Monsanto’s Glyphosate For Everything!


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  • Richard 22/05/2013 at 1:42 pm

    RobD: “OA shifts the costs of search and quality assurance to individual scientists who must now evaluate each piece of work that they use for themselves rather than being able to rely on established brands (journals) to underwrite this for them. In a freed-up market, as Ariel points out, this assurance cannot be relied upon – and there is nothing that can be done about it because that is how free markets work.”

    This has to be a *good* thing surely? Plenty of crap articles are published in non-open-access journals. If you are rigorous about your research, you should never take an article as being “reliable” just because it’s been published in a supposedly “good quality” journal.

    Regarding misleading the public with bad science in bad journals: is this going to have a significant effect on the public understanding of science, given the already generally poor quality of science reporting in the media? Only the seriously interested lay reader is going to go to journals to get their information; will such interested readers be misled by poor quality journals (any more than they would be misled by poor quality research in reputable journals)?

    Finally, here’s a hypothetical: publications matter for researcher prestige, hence the desire to publish many articles. If everyone does this, and everyone has hundreds of papers to their name, employers will need other measures of researcher quality to judge whether to hire them. This could potentially reduce the negative impact of the “publish or perish” mentality currently plaguing research. The market dynamics will alter, possibly even improving quality. But of course I have no data to back this theory up 😉

    • Ariel Poliandri 22/05/2013 at 2:49 pm

      I see your point Richard, but still not convinced about making open access journals the only option for scientists. There are other, equally valid, alternatives:
      -You can have “unedited” papers placed in Universities or other institutions’ depositories (As someone pointed out).
      -There could be library access (web based).
      -Articles could be released for free after a quarantine period.
      Of course scientists need to have critical thinking and not to rely on a journal “prestige” to believe what they read. If a scientist believes something only because it has been published in Cell, that person shouldn’t be called a scientist. Although I must say that my boss (a big professor) confessed once that he felt that the editors of some prestigious journals pressed him to be ruthless when refereeing articles.
      My theory about the market is: well-established journals compete for audience, not for scientists trying to publish (they reject 90+ % of the submissions and have scientists to spare). Readers pay for Science or Nature (or even Endocrinology) because they know that these journals are after good articles. No one will pay for PloS ONE, and there is a reason for that.
      It is fine to have the open access alternatives but it is wrong making that the only alternative (there are other ways to make research available for free). I also think that scientists ought to be assessed not only by where they have published (see my post But the same funding bodies that use journal impact factor as a measurement of success now are complaining about scientists being crazy for journals with high impact factors and are pressing for open access. Do you see the irony there?
      But perhaps is just that I have a bias for free markets…

  • RobD 09/05/2013 at 7:54 pm

    The problem here is that idealists like Shockey and Eisen have not really thought through the implications of their arguments – mainly because OA is a social science problem that natural scientists are not well trained to think about. Quality costs money and the present ecoystem is a highly evolved means of delivering it at a low price to individual scientists but with a corollary barrier to public access. OA shifts the costs of search and quality assurance to individual scientists who must now evaluate each piece of work that they use for themselves rather than being able to rely on established brands (journals) to underwrite this for them. In a freed-up market, as Ariel points out, this assurance cannot be relied upon – and there is nothing that can be done about it because that is how free markets work. It should also be noted that there is a complete lack of evidence about the actual level of demand for OA, where it is coming from and whether changes in the journal market are actually the best way to satisfy this. See MarK McCabe’s paper for the National Academy of Sciences at This also makes it clear that the allegations of super-normal profits by journal publishers are also debatable. While it was supposed that the reduction in delivery costs associated with the shift from print to online content delivery would at least lead to price stability in real terms. the new technology has actually driven content enrichment with more powerful search tools, linkage of citations, new representations of data, etc, which have required heavy investment in innovation. “Open Access Explained” is a pretty misleading account of a complex problem, which might well have other solutions.

  • Chuck 09/05/2013 at 7:53 pm

    But according to Nick Shockey of the Right to Research coalition and Jonathan Eisen, professor at the University of California, Davis and editor in chief of PLoS Biology, we live in a culture where access to scientific information is routinely restricted and not just by the government.

    Much is the restriction comes from the high cost of these traditional journals, which have been making a great deal of money for their publishers over the last few decades.

    You essentially can’t have science without open access to scientific findings, which allows for peer review and the possibility of reproducibility.

    Check out “Open Access Explained” at to learn more.

    Just don’t tell me that science can only thrive when traditional peer reviewed journals are allowed to charge a 30K subscription fee each year…

  • Dl 09/05/2013 at 7:51 pm

    If scientists just do science and they know which journals matter to them, then it is none of their business if someone finds a market for their Journal of Creation Science and Applied Magic and makes a bloody fortune at it. That is freedom of the press, freedom of speech and god knows what ever other real Rights rolled up in one. There is probably nothing you can do… hell I find 90% of what is on Discover and other formerly good sources of science program to be fantasy based (ancient astronauts, UFO’s, ghosts….) but they do it because people want it. The best way to keep prestige in the real journals is to stay above the fray and stay out of politics and policy. If you have a reputation for quality, honesty and no preaching, good journals will drive out bad.

    • Ariel Poliandri 09/05/2013 at 7:56 pm

      from the biotech industry’s perspective your strategy of “let ignorance be” is extremely short-sighted. We live in a democracy. As a result of all sorts of quackery and pseudoscience, people (and politicians) have been increasingly hostile to genetic engineering, stem cells, animal research, and even vaccines.
      Bad journals tend not affect scientists at first instance. But the people affected by them ultimately do influence science and industry by legislating or lobbying against them.
      We can support freedom of press. Yet we don’t need to help bad publishers to prosper.

  • Robert 09/05/2013 at 7:50 pm

    So why is anyone surprised. This is how markets work as some of us social scientists have been pointing out. There really is no way to replace the current self-regulation through major publishers and journal branding with external regulation. Producing black lists or white lists is a Sisyphean task that would demand a great deal of resource that is not obviously available. The article does have some sensible comments on alternatives. In the UK, the major publishers have offered to provide free walk-in access to users of public libraries, which would be enormously useful in reinvigorating those institutions currently under threat from the austerity regime. At least some of the publishers have also offered university libraries the option of free online access to alumni without extra fees on their package deals. I am told that there have been no takers, which raises some interesting questions about the politics of all this. Are librarians not talking to alumni offices about this potentially valuable benefit, which could motivate a lot of alumni giving? Are librarians suppressing news of these offers because it does not suit their own OA agenda? I think we should be told…

    • Ariel Poliandri 09/05/2013 at 7:55 pm

      The problem may reside in that scientists generally don’t stop to think about the problems that open access can generate. Also, for some policy makers, the science section on a news paper and a scientific journal may seem equally reliable forms of science communication; but they are not.

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