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Ethical challenges of open-access publishing

For many sectors of academe, ‘paying to publish’ is ethically suspicious.


As the executive editors of an open-access journal called BioéthiqueOnline (launched in 2012), we enthusiastically support the initiatives of the federal (e.g., CIHR) and provincial (e.g., Quebec) funding agencies to encourage open-access publication of academic research findings. We subscribe to the view that research funded by Canadian taxpayers should be made publicly available with the briefest delay, and not locked up in pay-to-access journals with high subscription fees. We think that advocating in favour of accessibility of research findings is about ensuring the free flow of ideas and knowledge among the scientific community, being publicly accountable and making the best out of limited resources. But, we also think that bona fide OA publishing needs a little bit of financial support from these same agencies.

The creation of OA public repositories – such as PubMedCentral Canada and university and institution based systems – is a good, if incomplete, first step in the right direction. Due to copyright constraints, it is often unformatted or pre-print versions of manuscripts that are deposited. In some contexts, this reduces usability; for instance, when page numbering is missing, it makes it difficult to use citations.

The move of major publishing houses – that now control the majority of high-impact journals – towards offering OA as an option that authors can choose could arguably be considered another positive step. The advantages are obvious: research can be published online much more quickly than in print and can reach a vastly wider audience.

However, the large publishers tend to shift editorial and publishing costs to authors (exceptions exist, for example, for authors in developing countries), who are usually required to pay up to thousands of dollars to have their article made OA. Although pay-to-publish may have become a norm in health sciences, for many other sectors of academia the idea of paying to publish is considered peculiar. In fact, many still see the practice as ethically suspicious, given the apparent conflict of interest. And, in a context of increased competition for fewer grants, with the inevitable cut to budgets, the idea of spending $3,000 to make one paper OA – as compared to paying a research assistant or graduate student – may be considered a poor use of funds. Even more concerning, young scholars and students will be hard-pressed to find the required funds to publish their research results using OA, a fact that can have negative implications for their academic careers.

Contrasting with the paper journals that offer an option to publish specific papers using an OA model, a host of fully OA journals have emerged. The models of such journals vary and, while some have no publication charges (i.e., are free to read and to publish), many charge for publication. Such a financial opportunity has given rise to the much-discussed “predatory” journals and publishers (see Beall’s List of “Potential, possible, or probable predatory scholarly open-access publishers”).

With questionable integrity demonstrated by having spurious or no editorial boards, poor or absent scientific review, and little or no ethical and/or publication guidelines, the objective of such journal publishers is clearly to lure unaware authors to pay publication fees that will show little or no “return on investment.” Most researchers – including us – are now inundated with email invitations to submit to such journals. In our experience, many colleagues are unaware that these invitations are from journals and publishers of dubious integrity. As editors, we are concerned by the impact that the increasing awareness of predatory OA journals can have on the OA movement as a whole. Indeed, there is a significant risk that all OA journals will be tarred with the same brush and that researchers will shift their focus back to traditional publishing because of its established credibility, despite slower turnaround and/or higher cost than OA options.

To stand out from the crowd of predatory journals, we need to be proactive. The approach that we have taken with BioéthiqueOnline has been to operate without any publication charges whatsoever. The absence of a financial interest offers a strong guarantee that we are not part of the “bad crowd” of OA journals. We post fully transparent procedures and policies that seek to be in line with the guidance from the Committee on Publication Ethics (COPE). We hope that our credibility will be established over time based on the quality and quantity of our publications. Other publishers, such as BioMed Central and PLOS, have been very successful in this regard, even though they charge publication fees, and they are paving the way for smaller OA players.

The downside of our approach is that we have limited funds to support our day-to-day operations; we are totally volunteer-run. Unfortunately, there is little in the way of funding from provincial or federal granting councils to support journal publishing, and many initiatives have been cut as granting councils have reorganized their programs. We have shown through two years of operation that OA publishing can be done at very low cost, but some funds are still required to cover the cost of technical support and administrative tasks to ensure stability and sustainability, as well as growth.

So, while we fully support the moves by federal and provincial agencies to demand an increase in the accessibility to the results of the research that they sponsor, we would invite them to pay greater attention to the current OA landscape. As becomes quickly apparent, this landscape is made up of a few high-cost mainstream publishers, of hundreds if not thousands of predatory and spurious journals, and of a smaller number of inexpensive journals that are trying to stand out from the crowd while struggling for their survival. Now that the technology makes it possible for high-quality and low-cost journals to exist, accountable and ethical practices of research funding should mandate that they be nurtured.

Dr. Williams-Jones is an associate professor and director of bioethics programs at Université de Montréal. Mr. Bélisle Pipon, Ms. Smith and Mr. Boulanger are graduate students in bioethics.


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  1. Gavin Moodie / January 15, 2014 at 10:39 am

    Almost all scholarly journals are now published electronically and print runs are greatly reduced, perhaps to disappear. Many journals publish articles as they are accepted for publication, making volumes, issue numbers and consecutive page numbering anachronistic.

    The future of scholarly journal publishing is much debated and contested, but it is at least possible that research papers will be published continuously on the web rather than assembled in journal volumes and issues. In future scholarly ‘journals’ may become authoritative web sites of refereed articles, with volumes, issues and sequential pagination replaced by uniform resource locators and digital object identifiers.

    Perhaps scholarly journals will coincide with the Gutenberg era, having been developed in the late 17th century during the scientific revolution taking advantage of print technology but to be replaced by its replacement, digital technology.

    If this is the case much of the authors’ distinction between digital repositories and open access journals fades.

  2. Julia M. Wright / January 15, 2014 at 12:38 pm

    Open access is changing the publishing environment, and we do need to be mindful of unanticipated impacts of those changes including on quality.

    But, as a first step, let’s separate out some of the issues:

    a) unscrupulous publishers have driven many of our libraries’ budgets to the brink, first by aggregating print journals (buy our top journal, sure, but only if you buy as well the bottom three!) and now by aggregating digital versions so that libraries are paying more and more for “bundles” that include journals they don’t want or need. The scam journals–offering to publish papers within six weeks for a fee–are a new digital phenomenon, but certain sectors of the publishing industry have been targeting academic budgets for a while. Open access fees of $3,000/article–which may not even reach the editorial team, but stay in the hands of the large publisher that charges it–are only the latest efforts by some sectors of the publishing industry to grab as many academic dollars as they can.

    b) Open access will require many journals to change their business model. Many in the Humanities are already run without support out of a professor’s office, but require subscription fees to pay essential costs. Mandating open-access publication for grant holders will pressure Canadian journals to move to open access and so think about web design costs, online assistance, and transition costs, often in parallel with established printing costs in order to maintain longstanding subscriptions.

    c) Open access has special challenges in some fields. Art history, e.g.: it can be expensive enough to get permissions from a museum for an image of a 17th-c. painting for a journal with a print run of 300. Putting that image online in an open-access forum means that that museum is virtually resigning its ownership of that image. Anyone who has tried to get permissions–for a film still, an art work, or recently published literature–knows that a key question is always print run. If the print run is, effectively, infinite, it will make some permissions difficult–even impossible–to get.

    In short, pressing quality concerns aside, open access has a money problem, and it’s hitting us at a time when money is relatively scarce in the halls of academe. Profit-driven multi-national publishers on one side, journals that have to rely on shoestring business models on the other, and on the edges some small museum or cultural producer trying to maintain financial viability through permissions fees. Even in the domain of high-quality peer-reviewed publication, these money problems can be intractable.

  3. Stevan Harnad / January 16, 2014 at 7:10 am

    Plans by universities and research funders to pay the costs of Open Access Publishing (“Gold OA”) are premature. Funds are short; 80% of journals (including virtually all the top journals) are still subscription-based, tying up the potential funds to pay for Gold OA; the asking price for Gold OA is still high; and there is concern that paying to publish may inflate acceptance rates and lower quality standards. What is needed now is for universities and funders to mandate OA self-archiving (of authors’ final peer-reviewed drafts, immediately upon acceptance for publication) (“Green OA”). That will provide immediate OA; and if and when universal Green OA should go on to make subscriptions unsustainable (because users are satisfied with just the Green OA versions) that will in turn induce journals to cut costs (print edition, online edition, access-provision, archiving), downsize to just providing the service of peer review, and convert to the Gold OA cost-recovery model; meanwhile, the subscription cancellations will have released the funds to pay these residual service costs. The natural way to charge for the service of peer review then will be on a “no-fault basis,” with the author’s institution or funder paying for each round of refereeing, regardless of outcome (acceptance, revision/re-refereeing, or rejection). This will minimize cost while protecting against inflated acceptance rates and decline in quality standards.

    Harnad, Stevan (2010) No-Fault Peer Review Charges: The Price of Selectivity Need Not Be Access Denied or Delayed. D-Lib Magazine, 16, (7/8)

  4. SC / January 28, 2014 at 12:51 pm

    Many traditional journals in the Biomedical field already ask for page charges (which increase exponentially if there are colour images). If I have to pay to publish, I would prefer that the results are freely accessible rather than hidden behind subscriptions and/or pay walls.

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