Study weighs impact of open access on scholarly journals

The first substantial study of the quickly evolving landscape of open-access publishing has found that about 40 per cent of the surveyed journals providing full open access to their articles are not yet covering their costs and face an uncertain financial future.

The new study, “The Facts about Open Access,” was sponsored by the Association of Learned and Professional Society Publishers (ALPSP), the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) and HighWire Press, with additional data from the Association of American Medical Colleges.

There has been a proliferation of open access journals during the past decade and considerable debate about their potential impact on traditional scientific journals such as Science, published by AAAS, and Nature.

The full open access journals, such as those produced by the online Public Library of Science, or PLoS, offer original research articles freely to all immediately upon publication and typically do not have subscription fees. They are more dependent on advertising and other forms of financing, such as foundation sponsorships and donated services.

“Discussion of Open Access tends to be strong on rhetoric but short on facts,” said Sally Morris, chief executive of ALPSP. “But we now have, for the first time, a substantial body of data about different forms of Open Access publishing, and a baseline of comparison with traditional subscription publishing.”

The study parameters were defined by the co-sponsors but the research and analysis were conducted by Kaufman-Wills Group, LLC, independent consultants. The study authors found a significant number of journals using various open-access approaches, both by traditional publishers and new entrants into the field. It noted the extent to which traditional publishers have been experimenting with open access approaches, such as offering articles freely to all after a set period of time.

“The Open Access movement has compelled traditional subscription journals to respond,” said Mark Frankel, co-director of AAAS’s Project on Science and Intellectual Property in the Public Interest (SIPPI), which helped fund the study.

But the new study makes clear that some of the full open-access journals could face significant financial pressures over the longer term. It said a number of them gave “disarmingly naïve responses” when asked about their business models.

The study was conducted in two phases by Kaufman-Wills Group. The first phase consisted of a survey of journals that produced responses from 128 ALPSP-member journals, 34 journals of the Association of American Medical Colleges, 85 journals hosted by HighWire Press and 248 journals from the Directory of Open Access Journals. In the second phase, 22 small and large publishers-responsible for publishing nearly 4,500 journals in all-were interviewed to provide a series of detailed case studies. Journals in the case studies were not identified by name in the study.

Among the journals surveyed, financial results were not as strong for full open access journals, with 41 per cent reporting shortfalls and 24 per cent breaking even. Among the journals surveyed that do not provide full open access, 81 per cent of the HighWire and AAMC journals reported a profit and 75 per cent of the ALPSP journals were in the black.

The study found widespread recognition by the publishing industry on the need for better ways to provide broad and timely access to research findings.

“We hope that this report will aid further discussion of alternative publishing models by adding to the body of evidence-based research towards the goal of wide access to research findings in the public interest,” said John Sack, director of HighWire Press. Sack’s organization, based at the Stanford University Libraries, serves as an online host for many established science journals.

The new study confirmed that open access journals, by and large, are younger than subscription journals and have not yet achieved the same impact as the more established journals. It found that open access journals tend to publish fewer articles, on average, and reject fewer submissions. The open-access journals conduct peer review but 28 percent of those surveyed used in-house editorial staff for review rather than outside specialists. Fewer of such journals do copy editing for style and grammar compared to traditional journals.

Few of the open access journals raise money by charging their authors fees, a surprising finding according to Morris. In fact, page charges, charges for color images, reprint charges and other fees for authors are considerably more common among subscription journals, the study found.


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