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The Tsunami of Open Access

Dixon, Suzanne D. MD, MPH

Journal of Developmental & Behavioral Pediatrics: February/March 2014 - Volume 35 - Issue 2 - p 163–164
doi: 10.1097/DBP.0000000000000028

Disclosure: The author declares no conflict of interest.

Received December , 2013

Accepted December , 2013

There is a tidal wave of change coming quickly onto the shore of scientific publishing, and there is no running away from it. Although seemingly small and benign at first glance, “open access” brings huge implications for all scientific journals and people who thrive on the orderly process of review and oversight of science. This is a summary of some aspects of this new force of nature.

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Open access is the process by which scientific publications are available without charge on the Internet for everyone forever. A fee is attached to putting these materials up, which is paid by the authors, the granting entity, or other institutions.

Some recently established journals are all open access, that is, someone pays for all papers to be published online only. For other journals, some articles are open access and some are not, a so-called hybrid model. All scientific journals, including this one, have been “hybrid” for sometime, as the National Institutes of Health (NIH) has required it. Since studies conducted with NIH funding have been paid for by public money, the reasoning is that such articles should be available without charge to the public at large. Practically speaking, that means other members of the scientific community. Journal of Developmental and Behavioral Pediatrics (JDBP) has had open access for these NIH-funded articles for several years.

So what has changed now? Established publishers like Lippincott Williams & Wilkins have realized that authors and funders now may want their work readily available for all. So an option is offered to authors to pay for that access, with fees ranging from $1200 to $8000 per article. This fee pays for all the production costs of the manuscript and compensates the publisher for the loss of copyright benefits. For these reputable publications, these papers and the subscription-only papers are reviewed in the same rigorous, blinded fashion. Readers can rely on the integrity of that work as they have in the past. This is the latest iteration of the “hybrid” model. This journal now offers this option to authors who publish their work here.

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Of course, we all would like all knowledge to be available to everyone on the planet—who could argue with that goal? Philosophically, it is appealing to all of us. But, there are some caution signs on this beachhead.

In theory, researchers with big pockets of money, their own or their funders, have the advantage here. Money buys access. Now, this may be a short-term concern for funded research because all grants soon are likely to contain funds for a “processing fee” (read open access). But, it also means that anyone still can buy a place in the literature in some journal somewhere. The review and oversight process is the safeguard against such things, but somebody has to pay for that. At this time, this process is paid for by subscriptions and advertising.

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With everybody having wide-open access to infinity of information, what would be the point for individuals or libraries of purchasing subscriptions? Subscription income could plummet. This lowered income may force many reputable journals, especially those without lucrative pharmaceutical and equipment advertising, right out of the business. And, it does not stop there. Many professional societies depend on their journals for support. Members of those societies regularly cite the journal subscription part of membership as being very valuable if not the only reason to pay society dues. So with all the benefits available without the need to pay dues, membership could fall quite dramatically. So now we have the structure of scientific societies and the scientific community being undermined as a rollout of unfettered open access.

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Many of you will have noticed that your inbox has been filling up with solicitations for papers from you and yours. Promising wide dissemination, quick processing, universal access, and high impact factor, these online-only publications have sprung up everywhere. They are ready to take your money. Largely offshore, these journals often purport to provide review of one's work. But there are often a couple of catches here: Reviewers are often paid to review and/or are cited with the article when it is published. Getting one's name in lights as a “respected reviewer” seems attractive, and your name may add halo effects for the original submission. These journals will often say that a certain article's findings were confirmed, agreed with, supported by, or acclaimed by _________% of reviewers, usually greater than 90%. Translated, this means that when the paper was posted, 90% of readers said they “liked” the paper. This is not a rigorous review process, but a social media approach to scientific oversight.

As to the impact factor, many of these new journals are not even listed by the agency that compiles this metric of citation frequency. Let the buyer beware. Some of these journals have offered to become “The Official Journal of _______ Society” and are willing to share that designation with established journal relationships. That would be a blessing for that new company's reputation. In fact, they may be willing to pay for that ordination. I have firsthand knowledge of this kind of offer. JDBP is not for sale.

Given what we are beginning to find out about this new breed of journal, you might think that such an entry on a CV would be less an asset than a blemish. If not now, soon. And that is fine for established researchers who have set reputations and long lists of publications. A few weak entries may not even be noticed. However, junior investigators might be encouraged to submit their work to such a venue. I don't think that is the path to career advancement and would be an embarrassment in a promotion package. Furthermore, that cheats the next generation of learning from strong reviews, carefully revising their work, and seeing it shine in a first-tier publication. Shortcuts to publication should not be promoted.

Open access has the potential to change the face of science and scientific publishing. Much of that is on the upside: wider dissemination of knowledge, a world open and free to all who wish to reach out. But there are dangers lurking inside that tidal wave as well. I suggest that we all get not only surfboards to ride this wave but also snorkels to see what is below the surface.


open access; impact factor; peer review

© 2014 by Lippincott Williams & Wilkins