Traditional versus Open Access Publishing
With the boom of digital publishing and the central role of the internet in the dissemination of today’s advanced research, academic and scientific journals now offer authors more options than ever for the publication of their scholarly articles. Among the many concerns for researchers who are deciding on the best journal for a research-based manuscript is the question of traditional versus open access. The question is far from minor or simple, and the intensity of recent debate over the matter of research accessibility complicates matters further. Fortunately, the proliferation of open-access journals, many of them now of a very high quality, and the accessibility innovations developed at traditional journals provide researchers with a number of useful possibilities, but it is imperative to understand what the options mean and to determine exactly what kind of access will prove the most effective choice for a particular scholarly paper.
Traditional accessibility models for scholarly journals place newly published articles behind a pay wall. Individual researchers and research libraries pay a subscription fee, usually annually, and current issues of the journal are sent to those subscribers. The practice began long before electronic publishing, so the subscription fees covered the cost of printing and distribution as well as review and production. Many academic and scientific journals continue to provide printed versions to subscribers even though they now publish the same material digitally, and they also tend to charge subscription fees or download charges for online access to the digital files, at least until a certain period of time has passed and the articles have been archived.
Scholarly journals offering readers open access to the articles they publish do not charge subscription or download fees of any kind, which means that anyone interested in a study can access and read it without a financial investment beyond a connection to the internet. Printed copies of the journal are not produced, which significantly reduces publication costs, but review and production costs remain, so authors, their research institutions or other funding bodies usually pay post-acceptance or article-processing fees to have papers published. Reputable open-access journals subject submissions to peer review just as traditional journals do to ensure high-quality scholarship, but authors should beware of predatory journals that claim to observe scholarly standards such as peer review, but actually exist only to extort fees from authors and are unlikely to provide an acceptable quality or appropriate dissemination. Signs that a scholarly journal is not what it should be include incorrect grammar and spelling on the website, a lack of precision and clarity regarding publishing objectives and processes, publication timelines that do not leave enough space for proper peer review and other questionable claims, and this is true of journals with more traditional publishing practices as well, though the problem is more prevalent among open-access periodicals.
Absolutely central to the decision between traditional and open-access publication is an understanding of who the desired, anticipated and probable readers of the article in question might be. If a new article is published behind a pay wall, researchers, instructors and students associated with universities and other research institutions that subscribe to the journal will have access, and so will a number of specialists who subscribe to the journal individually. Independent researchers, practitioners of all kinds and the general public will only be able to read the article if they are also able to pay. Single download fees can be incredibly high and institutional subscriptions so costly that some research libraries cannot afford them, so if the aim is to reach readers whose access might be impeded by fees, open access may be the better choice. There is, in fact, sound evidence that open-access articles are viewed, read and downloaded far more often than articles behind pay walls, but the evidence for higher citation rates is not yet so conclusive, and it is possible that lingering uncertainties about the quality of open-access scholarship may prevent some of those specialists and their students from consulting and using it.
In some cases the author may have no choice about access because his or her institution or another organisation funding the research insists that any publications be freely available to all readers. Open access will be necessary to satisfy such requirements, even if the author may not want or be able to pay the necessary post-acceptance fees. Of course, some journals charge significant publication fees for traditional dissemination as well, but open-access fees can be very large and even prohibitive for many scholars. Fees are sometimes waived when authors cannot afford them, but this is not always true even when an article has been highly recommended by peer reviewers. Fortunately, funding bodies that insist on a particular form of access also tend to cover such fees, but there may also be an assumption that researchers will do so with the grant money provided. An alternative is offered by open-access journals that ask authors to complete peer reviews in lieu of payment or publish the work of students or emerging scholars for reduced rates. It is far rarer for a funding body to limit publishing options to a traditional journal, but it is certainly possible, so all regulations and requirements associated with the financial support of a research project should always be read with care when choosing access options.
If the research content of a manuscript is particularly time sensitive so that publishing it as quickly as possible is highly desirable, an author may want to choose an open-access journal. Indeed, one of the most appealing aspects of digital publishing is the speed with which research can be made available to readers, and open-access journals do tend to have shorter timelines from submission to publication. However, peer review always requires extra time, so unrealistic claims about hasty publication should be viewed with caution. Traditional publishing practices, on the other hand, can mean delays associated with printing, such as those caused by space limitations and the need to gather articles into individual issues of the journal, but many traditional journals that also publish digitally will make preprint versions of articles available online prior to formal publication to enable authors to share their research as quickly as possible. Institute websites, scholarly blogs, and social and professional media platforms also offer opportunities for trickling out bits or drafts of articles yet to be published, but care must be taken not to break any licensing agreements established with a journal.
If career advancement and funding opportunities are prominent among the reasons for seeking publication, a sound argument can still be made for choosing a traditional journal that is well established and highly respected in the relevant field. Scientific and academic perception continues to favour such traditional journals as the most reliable in terms of content, quality and impact, so employers and the organisations that support research will often look more kindly upon a CV boasting articles published in one of those traditional top-tier periodicals. Many open-access journals are relatively new, however, so citation counts are only beginning to reveal the intellectual impact of these journals, and some research institutions now favour open-access publication. Perceptions of publishing prestige and career rewards are therefore likely to undergo significant shifts in the coming years. In fact, some of the most prestigious of scholarly journals are now experimenting with open access amidst their more traditional publishing practices, making it possible for a researcher (or the organisation funding the research) to pay an extra fee and attain complete or a certain level of open access for an article while still offering the career benefits of achieving publication in a top-tier journal. The terminology associated with these access possibilities varies, so a journal’s website should always be studied carefully for all options.
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