Publishing articles, and the debate over ‘open access’ publications

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Academics, and those aspiring to enter into the academic profession, are most probably familiar with the phrase ‘publish or perish’.  The need for academics to publish is integral to applications for jobs, promotion to permanent positions and to obtain research funding.  Publishing peer-reviewed journal articles are a key part of this process.  However, in recent years, a contentious issue has emerged concerning the publication routes available for article publication.  This debate is mainly concerned with the provision of open access publications – an approach that is based on the premise that articles are freely available to everyone, with the authors paying an article-processing charge for accepted articles.    This article will provide a brief overview of this issue and considerations pertaining to the publication of journal articles.  It outlines the considerations that authors now face when they seek to pursue publication in journals.

Why publish an article?

The prestige of publishing a peer-reviewed journal article remains high.  Many journals often highlight their high submission and low acceptance rate as an indicator of the quality that they expect from authors.  Furthermore, many metrics are used as a means of measuring the quality and research power of a specific journal.  This can be based on impact factors and also where the journal is indexed.  These are important considerations when planning strategically for research assessments such as the Research Excellence Framework.  Be sure to check these aspects in great detail, since the requirements for promotion or research funding differ from discipline to discipline.  Nevertheless, the publication of an article is testimony to your research quality and should be warmly greeted by your peers.

The debate concerning open access

This is proving to be one of the most controversial ongoing debates in the profession at the moment.  The debate is largely about who should pay for the publication and maintenance costs for journals.  Traditionally, journals would raise their revenue through charging subscription costs to libraries and individuals.  In the pre-digital age, journals would be sent in print format to libraries, where they would be stocked and available for registered students and researchers to read.  With the rise of digital technology, and the lack of storage space, universities favoured a movement towards digital platforms for articles, where access to journals would be provided through an electronic subscription, and articles could be downloaded as PDF files.  Nevertheless, as with the print version of journals, subscription costs were often high, and not all universities would subscribe to all journals of interest in a particular field, citing cost factors as an important issue. This meant that many researchers and students did not have access to all the material they desired.  Journals would subsequently offer the opportunity to purchase, for a limited time, access to individual articles, but again, this would be costly.

This situation gave rise to the debate concerning open access. Some journals sought to move towards a model where the author, or the institution at which the author was based, would pay the publication cost for the article.  This was called an ‘author processing charge’, within which there would be several costlier options attached that would influence the dissemination of the article and access conditions.  In effect, this model shifted the cost burden away from libraries who were previously required to purchase the article, and towards authors who were now liable for the cost of publishing their article.  Attached to this was the idea that if authors paid for their article to be published, it would ensure that the article could be reproduced elsewhere without permissions needed.  Nevertheless, many authors were very unhappy about this development and cited fact that the permissions process is normally relatively straightforward. Furthermore, if you are the main author requesting permission to reproduce your previously published work elsewhere, it is normally free (in the humanities at least).  On the flip side, for readers, the introduction of open access was good news.  Now, all readers could access material published under open access free of charge, irrespective of whether they held a subscription to the journal concerned. 

Nevertheless, this issue is one that is unlikely to be settled in the short term.  It raises deeper questions concerning who should pay for research to be disseminated?  Moreover, there is also a tendency for many academics to believe that if you have to pay for your own work to be published, then this could potentially reflect negatively on its quality.  While supporters of the open access model argue that it is good news for researchers and permits them to access research without having to have subscriptions to journals, others disagree.  For authors, many do not believe that it is their duty to subsidise the cost of their publication.  As the pros and cons of the argument continue to be thrashed out, we are likely to see the existence of two models of publication for some time to come – one where access to research depends on subscription, and one where research is freely available, but paid for by authors.      

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