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Open access publishing: the tension between commercial and community

A man reading while sitting on a pile of coins

Open access publishing can benefit communities through the sharing of research, or be a commercial concern for generating profit, but most often occupies a point within a continuum between the two.

Local examples of community-driven journals are The Wolverhampton Law Journal and The Journal of Health and Social Care Improvement. These journals were created to share research without barriers, not just for readers but authors too. They do not charge authors but do have editorial processes to ensure the quality of research presented freely to all and act as an alternative to more commercial journals.

For more commercial journals there is a need to break even, but also generate profits for shareholders. Commercial publishers can often afford systems and processes to make sure that the research is highly visible and shared in a highly polished format because of the money they generate. Yet this can lead to tensions between the potential for the journal to share research to benefit a community and the commercial impulses of a company to ensure return on investment.

Some journals try to offset what they see as potential losses caused by sharing research on an open access basis, by passing the cost of publication to authors and their institutions through article processing and book processing charges. This can create barriers for researchers who do not have resources to meet these charges. The drive for profit can influence editorial mandates that lead to only research presenting positive results getting published. This is intended to keep audience engagement and numbers of subscriptions high, which in turn can force researchers to pursue only research that fits these editorial missions. Commercialism has also led to the creation of bibliometrics that serve to try and indicate which journals are the best, based on citation counts and journal impact factors, which helps to secure their position in the marketplace.

The most commercial of publishers create journals purely to maximise profit, and in the early 2010s a large number of new publishers appeared almost overnight and often disappeared shortly afterwards, once they had collected publishing charges from researchers. This gave rise to the term “predatory publishers”.

Predatory publishers will often lack robust peer review processes, have little or no editing or formatting on articles, and will stop providing access to articles with no notice. They often have high acceptance rates for articles, as they publish anything sent to them in journals without a clear mission. They contact researchers to solicit submissions. In extreme cases they may make false claims about who is on their editorial boards.

The impact of predatory publishing can mean that researchers lose vital opportunities to communicate their research, as well as money. Once research is published in a predatory journal, there is usually no option to resubmit to another more trustworthy journal.

One of the major tools to emerge to help authors in the last ten years is Think.Check.Submit. Rather than trying to provide an authoritative list of journals to avoid, the resource promotes the use of critical thinking about avenues for publication, allowing authors to decide if a publisher is trustworthy, but can also be used to work out if the publisher has more of a community or a commercial focus. This allows you to make a considered choice about where to publish.

Things to consider when picking a publisher include:

  • Is the publisher well-known?
  • Is the journal well-established?
  • Who is on the editorial board, and can you verify the editors based on personal webpages?
  • Does the stated editorial mission match the articles published?
  • Does the stated editorial mission match your own goals and ideals for research?
  • Is the journal read by people you know?
  • How does their acceptance rate for articles compare to other journals from other publishers?
  • Are their publication charges (if any) transparent?
  • What is their peer review process?

Some journals may be weaker in some areas than others, but the key is whether the overall nature of the journal allows the researcher to meet their goals.

Alongside this, new models and platforms for disseminating research are emerging that do not require research to create a narrative of positive results but rather a series of outputs, including datasets and methodologies, that can be used by the community. Octopus, which we have talked about on the blog before, is an example of this non-commercial approach to sharing research.

The other blogposts this week will look at community initiatives that seek to provide a more equitable approach to open access. The next blogpost will look at diamond open access and how it hopes to make open access publication available to all.


Stuart Bentley, Scholarly Communications Librarian.


Image by Mathieu Stern, 2020, shared via an Unsplash License

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