Dispelling Myths about Open Access

MIT Libraries

Is it true that Open Access means an article is not copyrighted?

No. Choosing to publish through an open access channel does not mean the article is not copyrighted.

The same options exist when publishing through an open access channel as when an article is published through a controlled-access (or traditional subscription) model: the author may in some cases be able to retain copyright, or may be required to grant the journal publisher copyright. But in either case, the article is still copyrighted, either by you or the publisher.

There is no direct and clean relationship between open access journals and copyright policy. Many, but not all, open access journals have liberal polices that allow authors to retain copyright. Most traditional subscription-based journals have standard copyright transfer agreements that require authors to turn over copyright upon publication, but some such publishers will agree to negotiate this requirement, or have a standard agreement that is more liberal.

Some publishers of hybrid journals allow authors to retain copyright for articles published under their open access option; others will still ask that you transfer copyright.

Even when self-publishing on the web, the author has copyright to the content. (Registering copyright is not required, although it has some advantages.) As an author and copyright holder, if you wish to clearly instruct readers about what you authorize them to do with your content, you can attach a creative commons license.

Is it true that Open Access articles and journals are not peer-reviewed?

No. A journal”s economic or access policy does not determine its peer review policy. Most scholarly journals, whether open access or controlled-access journals, are peer-reviewed. There are both open and controlled journals that are not peer-reviewed.

Most major publishers now have an open access option for individual articles. This does not change the submission, peer review, or editorial process for those journals or articles.

Is it true that Open Access journals are built on a premise that they are “free”?

No. As others have briefly summarized this point: Open Access journals and articles are not “free” in the sense of “free lunch;” they do aim to be free, however, in the sense of “free speech.” Supporters of Open Access do not assume that documenting and providing access to research can be carried out without cost, but they do assume that research should be accessible to readers without barriers. So the costs involved in editing, refereeing, producing, and distributing a journal are expected to be managed through a business model other than payment for access to the content.

For more information, see: How do the economics of open access work? and a summary of ten flavors of open access in John Willinsky’s The Access Principle.

Is it true that Research is already openly available enough?

No. It’s true that preprints and postprints are made widely available on the internet, with or without the consent of the publisher of the final article. However, many authors are constrained by publisher policies from making all their research available, and disciplines vary in their support for making pre- or post- prints available. One 2006 paper co-authored by a leader in the OA movement, Stevan Harnad, estimates that only 15% overall of articles are being made available “through spontaneous self-archiving” into institutional repositories by their authors.

A recent study (pdf) by Ted Bergstrom, an economics professor at UC Santa Barbara, showed that of very recent economics articles published in 25 journals, 73% were available in a free version through a Google search. This is a significant percentage, but it still indicates that more than ¼ of the articles were excluded from access. Bergstrom concludes that the self-archived, freely accessible copies are very important since “many readers have no access to publisher-posted copies,” including “small universities, private sector, and third world countries.”

In the developing world, even though there are important initiatives to make research available at little or no cost (see for example HINARI and AGORA), access varies by publisher, discipline, and location. High priced subscriptions and exclusive/restrictive license agreements work to lock down access; these praiseworthy methods of extending access do not provide broad and complete access to research. (See also: recent commentary on HINARI in PLoS Medicine.)

Is it true that Open Access will inevitably harm scholarly societies?

No. It is inevitable that all publishers will need to adjust existing economic models to meet the realities of, and fully realize the capabilities of, internet access. All members of the scholarly community – authors, readers, publishers, librarians, and academic administrators – will need to collaborate to build the best models for scholarly publishing and access in the digital age. The best new models are likely to require significant change from all the players; the existing controlled-access journal subscription model, particularly in cases where the journals are high-priced, may not serve the community as well as it has in the past. New economic models need to be developed and tested, a process that is already underway.

None of this means that scholarly societies, many of which depend on revenue from their publication programs, will necessarily be jeopardized by transitioning to these new economic models. As Clifford Lynch, the Executive Director of the Coalition for Networked Information, has recently said about journals published by scholarly societies: “their journals typically are viewed as offering high quality at reasonable cost, and there’s no reason that they shouldn’t continue to be highly competitive if one moves away from a reader-pays model.”

Resources exist to assist publishers who want to try open access models. See for example the Open Society Institute’s Guide to Business Planning for Converting a Subscription-based Journal to Open Access.

Is it true that Open Access journals have lower impact factors?

No. There are high impact factor open access journals in a wide range of disciplines. You can review the Directory of Open Access Journals or search for them in Ulrich’s, and then review the titles’ impact factors using three different measures.

Are these the only significant myths out there about Open Access?

No. For more examples, see BioMed Central’s (Mis)Leading Open Access Myths.