Open Access Causes Disruption of Status Quo
With each bringing a unique perspective, four open-access proponents address a contentious subject affecting scholarly publications.

By Emily Litvack, UA Office for Research & Discovery
March 14, 2016

Open access, or OA, journals — scholarly publications that are made available to all, free of charge and with unrestricted use — have shifted the paradigm when it comes to research.

Before the advent of the Internet, there was just one way to publish research, and that was through scholarly journals that charge a subscription fee to readers. Many, such as Nature and Science, still operate this way today.

These days, with more than 10,000 open-access journals in operation, it is becoming increasingly common to publish research this way. But even so, the OA movement remains contentious in academia, and it continues to evolve.

"There is no free lunch in life." –Nirav Merchant

Albrecht Classen, Distinguished Professor of German Studies at the University of Arizona, serves as the editor-in-chief for Humanities, an open-access journal established in 2012.

While many OA journals avoid charging their readership by instead charging researchers for publication, Humanities is free for readers and offers free publication for researchers, who must first have their papers approved through its "extremely intensive, rigorous" peer-review process. Peer review is the process by which researchers working in the same field evaluate one another’s work.

"If I pay for my research to be published, I feel I am compromising my scholarly standards," Classen says. "In this model, everyone who is a researcher can freely develop ideas, without financial constraint."

Classen is a purist in this regard. He once agreed to serve on the editorial board of an Italian journal to skirt its $130 publishing fee for one of his research articles, "on principle."

But Humanities faces financial trouble and is in danger of having to revert to the traditional paywall model of closed-access journals. Classen and fellow editors recently wrote a proposal for a sizable grant that could sustain Humanities, and they are waiting on a response.

"I have a different point of view," says Nirav Merchant, director of the UA's Arizona Research Laboratories. Merchant is also a principal investigator behind CyVerse, a National Science Foundation-funded data management platform. "The reality is, you have to pay the bills. There is no free lunch in life. Nothing is zero cost."

Merchant has published his own research in PLOS ONE, a peer-reviewed, open-access scientific journal with some 85 new articles published daily. To publish in PLOS ONE, researchers pay about $1,500 per article in "article processing charges," or APCs.

Richard Amini, assistant professor of emergency medicine at UA, says, "Funding really is the biggest challenge with open access. Some institutions pay their physicians to publish as an incentive, and some institutions pay for any open-access publications. Previously at the UA, we had neither."

Now, UA Libraries has an open-access publishing fund, which Amini has utilized, calling it "very helpful."

While Classen is dubious of the pay-to-publish structure, Merchant defends its integrity, saying, "It's peer-reviewed, and researchers don't pay for the peer review. Only after being accepted, you pay for publication."

Shane Burgess, dean of the UA's College of Agriculture and Life Sciences and editor of the open-access journal BMC Genomics, agrees.

"I have reviewed and edited for open- and closed-access journals," Burgess says, "and I have experienced not a single difference in the rigor of the peer-review process. There is absolutely no difference between the quality of the work that is published."

"Citations are king right now." –Richard Amini

Aside from finances, the quality of the work is another point of contention for researchers in today's publishing environment.

Asked why he believes open-access journals are viewed negatively by some, Classen conjures a hypothetical scenario in which a faculty member up for tenure publishes high volumes of low-quality research in open-access journals simply to demonstrate to the committee that he or she is prolific.

Classen does not believe this is reason enough to reject the OA movement.

Burgess calls the hypothetical scenario "flat-out impossible," adding that "it's a myth that open-access journals are easy to get into."

In fact, Burgess believes some faculty actively avoid publishing in OA journals in the belief that a tenure committee might frown upon it. But as someone who sits on such committees, he does not.

Meanwhile, Amini isn't even sure that it's all about quantity of publications anymore: "We're in an era in research publication where citation of your manuscripts is almost more important than publication numbers. It's not so much about the volume. It's more about the quality, and quality is being measured by how often your work is cited. Citations are king right now.

"If someone is trying to download my manuscript and it is free versus 20-plus dollars, my open-access manuscript will be more likely to be cited," Amini concludes.

At the same time, scholarly journals are assigned impact factors — another contentious subject in the world of academia. An impact factor is supposed to measure a given journal's relative importance in its field — although many call it a poor measure — and it is calculated based on the average number of citations received per paper published in the journal during the two previous years.

"Because of the way the open-access journals work, it's very hard for them to get as high an impact factor as some of the closed-access journals," Burgess says. In some fields, including biology and bioinformatics, OA journals have some of the highest impact factors, but today this is the exception to the rule.

In 2014, Nature, a closed-access journal, had an impact factor above 40. PLOS ONE’s hovers just above 3.

"I'd like to see the creative disruption that this is making move to creative destruction of the old way." –Shane Burgess

Classen, Merchant, Amini and Burgess all agree on one thing: Regardless of whether the academic community at large is ready to give OA journals the level of legitimacy each believes they deserve, disruption of business as usual is a good thing for research.

"For most people, open access means you have free access to the publication. To me, that's a very small piece of the bigger picture. Being able to reproduce results is where the real strength of open access is," says Merchant, adding that platforms such as CyVerse will be integral in making this happen. CyVerse does this by publishing OA data and computations.

There are a number of more broad benefits to OA journals, Burgess says: "Anybody in any country can access these papers at any time. A second benefit is that, (by moving toward OA), we can save students money, and we would do that by spending less of the university's budget on subscriptions to journals. A third benefit is that, currently, all journals rely primarily on the free labor of faculty to do peer reviewing. This way, everybody who is doing the work gets to see all of the work, and can maintain the rights to their intellectual property."

Closed-access journals often gain the rights to the content in a research article when they publish it. With OA publishing, there are ways to protect intellectual property, including "libre OA," wherein authors have usage rights that are maintained under creative commons licenses.

"We have an obligation to share our knowledge." –Albrecht Classen

Ultimately, perhaps more than anything else, OA proponents at the UA argue that making their research openly accessible does a service not only to the research community, but to the public.

"Open access publishing paves the way for researchers to collaborate effectively, while maximizing accessibility of their work and furthering discoveries in the ever-evolving research environment,” says Kimberly Andrews Espy, senior vice president for research at the UA. “These types of open access portals give UA researchers a wider audience and exposure."

Says Classen: "Open access is exactly what scholarship should be about. Our research should be made available to the public. We have an obligation to share our knowledge."


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