In Focus
Oct 25, 2018

The Conundrum of Open-Access Publishing

New principles aiming to democratise academic literature have the support of 11 European countries. But will they solve an age-old problem?

Jake GilchristEditor-At-Large
James McQuade for The University Times

The complexity surrounding the future funding of research publications is not exactly a frequent topic of conversations among students, but it represents a significant issue for many academic staff members at universities the world over. In a climate of “publish or perish” among researchers, the battle for a spot in one of publishing’s elite journals is extraordinarily competitive. So much so that for decades these publications have dictated the spread of scientific knowledge, and profited significantly from exercising such dominance over the field through their subscription-service model.

However, the century-old business model of journals is being challenged. On September 4th, Science Europe, an association of organisations involved both in funding and carrying out major scientific research, announced the launch of new principles termed “Plan S” and “cOAlition S”, which aim to release academic literature from behind journal paywalls. With the support of 11 European countries, including Ireland and the UK, as well as from the European Commission, the initiative mandates that by 2020 researchers receiving funding from national agencies must publish all of their findings in open-access journals.

The widespread demand for open-access publications seems to come from a moral standpoint for most academics – and rightly so


Speaking to The University Times, Prof Kingston Mills, a researcher of immune regulation in Trinity, says “open-access has huge benefits”: “It means that when something is published, it’s freely available to all scientists around the world – that’s an admiral aspiration. However, there are financial implications for this.”

The widespread demand for open-access publications seems to come from a moral standpoint for most academics – and rightly so. As Prof Luke O’Neill, Trinity’s Professor of biochemistry, puts in in an email statement to The University Times, “publishers have ripped off scientists for too long – we referee papers for them, pay for our papers to be published and then have to buy the paper back off them. The taxpayer is the main funder and so all publications should be free to access”.

These frustrations appear to boil down to two main points. The first is that money from taxpayers funds the research, as agencies assign government-allocated resources to deserving projects. The papers produced from these projects, in order to receive any attention, then have to be published in journals, which the public are required to pay for in order to access. Open access would therefore appear to solve the issues associated with such an unfair cycle, as subscriptions are taken out of the equation. Speaking to The University Times, Prof Cliona O’Farrelly of Trinity’s School of Biochemistry and Immunology agrees that “it’s the taxpayer that’s paying for all of this, so the taxpayer absolutely should have access to the research”.

The solution that most researchers currently take to combat access issues is to upload their findings to third-party websites such as ResearchGate. But this isn’t without risk, as uploading to such sites can result in being precluded from journals for six months due to copyright breaches. Speaking to The University Times, Dr Marcus Collier, an assistant professor of botany, explains how “technically there’s a war going on. Academics feel that if a million people upload a million papers illegally, there’s no way every person could be sued”.

Publishers have ripped off scientists for too long – we pay for our papers to be published and then have to buy the paper back off them

The issue of access in developing countries similarly forms an important argument. Speaking to The University Times, Prof Valeria Nicolosi, the head of Trinty’s Characterisation and Processing of Advanced Materials group, details how “places in Latin America, where the universities have to make the piece with very very limited budgets … they cannot afford subscriptions to very very expensive journals”. “Knowledge transfer is key for developing countries”, she says, “and this will be a way to say actually knowledge has the same cost, which is zero, anywhere”.

The second argument is that despite constant hours spent on peer review by researchers, no significant individual benefit is gained. Speaking to The University Times, Dr Tomás Ryan, a researcher of memory engrams at Trinity, describes how “the major medical journals and the major science journals are run by professional publishers, and they still need us to review their papers, and we do a lot of the work and we are not at all compensated for this”. Prof Marina Lynch, Professor of cellular neuroscience in Trinity, also explains how “the most you’ll get for peer reviewing is open access to a journal for a month”. Speaking to The University Times, she says: “I get absolutely no concession at all. So it seems to me that the publishers are the ones that are benefitting.”

If, however, it seems that the changes being implemented by Science Europe will unambiguously solve the problem, then researchers are not without scepticism, especially regarding the scheme’s implementation. The fundamental concern is the open-access charge scheme. Currently, researchers who elect to publish their work with open access are forced to pay inflated prices to the journal. Nicolosi says that “the problem is that publishing in an open access format is actually extremely expensive for the scientist. We’re talking about a price that ranges between €3,500 and €6,000, depending where you publish”. While this money is budgeted into grant proposals, it takes away from what could be spent on research materials and additional tests.

Speaking to The University Times, Dr Anthony Staines, a professor at Dublin City University, describes a similar set of frustrations, adding that when editing for his paper to be published, he “spent days and days and days and days making corrections for the printers, and that’s insane. I’m not a typographer, I shouldn’t be even thinking about that, but that’s what I was doing. So I am not at all convinced that the whole infrastructure of journals adds value”.

Currently, researchers who elect to publish their work with open access are forced to pay inflated prices to the journal

Should such a situation with publication costs continue, it could have severe consequences for researchers who are early in their careers. When asked about the impact on young researchers, Mills says that “open access is going to have the effect of actually making it tougher for the younger people”: “If I’m working on something, and somebody else in another country is working on it, and they publish it two days before me, well then I’m no longer something that’s novel. It has made the field much more competitive.”

A further concern stems from the rise of predatory journalism. Detailing this, O’Farrelly says that she will often “get at least five invitations per week to submit papers to these scamming journals, or to come on their editorial boards. There’s an enormous amount of scamming going on”. These journals, which mostly work off variations of well-known journal names, try to seduce respected academics to publish with them.

Overall, while largely supported, open access is not without its imperfections

Additionally, open access has seemingly triggered a proliferation of journals that feature substandard research. With little or no peer review, they represent a danger that open access could provide a platform for. Lynch says “there are an awful lot of journals out there boasting about open access, but when you investigate, they’re rogue journals”. In the era of fake news, halting the dissemination of unreliable information is vitally important, and nowhere more so than in the scientific industry.

Overall, while largely supported, open access is not without its imperfections. Whether it can be successfully instituted will likely come down to whether the current issues can be ironed out, and figuring out how journals can remain funded without burdening researchers with significant publishing costs.

Collier sums it all up perfectly, concluding that “it is about money, and the more it’s about money, the more money it’s going to be about”. It seems then that despite making significant strides over recent years, the execution of open-access publishing still has a long way to go.

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