Open Access: No Closed Matter

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The move to Open Access publishing has been driven in large part by a desire to make research publicly available and to make knowledge less exclusive.

The journals that we edit have long been committed to these objectives. Yet as emerging forms of Open Access publishing are gaining greater recognition, it is important to address some of their potential unintended consequences.

These include risks that:

(1) certain groups of authors will no longer be able to publish their work because of a lack of access to funding or to institutions with funding;

(2) editorial decisions may be perceived as being shaped by the author’s affiliation, as such affiliation may influence the ability to pay publishing fees;

(3) authors lose the freedom to decide where to submit their work due to their institutions’ selective agreements with publishers or research council instructions; and

(4) journals’ financial viability becomes more and more dependent on the quantity of articles for which Open Access fees are charged, rather than the quality of curation.

While the journals that we edit are moving toward full Open Access, we share these concerns to encourage a discussion with our authors, readers, publishers, fellow editors and academic communities about how best to address these risks. Understanding these concerns requires first addressing the rise of Open Access and its different forms, including the funding structures.

The Case for Open Access

There has been a push for making research generally, and journal articles specifically, ‘Open Access’; that is to say, freely accessible (and, often less relevant outside the hard sciences, freely reusable) to everyone on the internet, whether or not they have a subscription. The main push has come from public funding bodies: aiming to make access to knowledge less exclusive, they rightly insist that publicly funded research must be publicly available. Publishers have creatively responded to this political demand. It coincided with another driver for change in the publishing world: the internet has made it harder to enforce payment for access to the knowledge that publishers disseminate. Publishers were therefore interested in an Open Access world if Open Access came with alternative sources of income to cover their costs (and, in the case of commercial publishers, to generate profit).

The case for the aim of Open Access is strong, particularly due to fundamental inequalities in accessing academic literature. This bears most heavily upon scholars working in the Global South, but it is also an issue for scholars whose institutions in the Global North have library budgets that can acquire only a fraction of all scholarly work that gets published. Broader publics outside universities also struggle to access academic literature due to prohibitive paywalls. The push for Open Access is strong because many vectors converge: readers want access; authors want everyone who is potentially interested in their work to have access to their work; and editors want their journals to reach as many readers as possible. 

Open Access: Three Clarifications

Three clarifications are required upfront concerning how journals are structured and financed, the extent of their transition to Open Access, and the different categories of Open Access publication.

First, the ownership, management structures and finances of journals, including those that we edit, differ. For instance, some journals are fully owned by the publisher, others are partially owned by the publisher and others are not owned by the publisher, but the publisher manages the subscriptions, publication and distribution in exchange for annual payments that cover the expenses of running the journal. These differences in structures lead to differences in who is ultimately in control of, and financially responsible for, the journal. The points that we collectively raise in this editorial, however, apply irrespective of these differences. For ultimately, whether it is the editors who are responsible for a journal’s finances or a publisher, the shifts in the funding structure due to the modalities of Open Access have an impact on a journal’s financial viability and thus potentially its existence. (Unlike independent journals, publishers have bandwidth to cross-subsidize: using the revenues from a revenue-gaining journal to keep a smaller journal running. However, some of our discussions with publishers suggest that there is only a limited willingness to do so.)

Secondly, different law journals are in different phases of the ‘transition’ towards Open Access. Some still work entirely on the basis of subscriptions; others are ‘hybrid’, with some articles behind a paywall and others Open Access, and again other journals are fully Open Access. Our journals are currently ‘hybrid’, and while some of the darker sides of full Open Access may not exist for hybrid journals, the status of a hybrid journal comes with its own challenges, as we explain below.

Thirdly, of the so-called ‘Green’, ‘Gold’ and ‘Diamond’ Open Access, we focus on ‘Gold’ Open Access. Green Open Access is a form of self-archiving: a version of the manuscript becomes available in online repositories. Publishers often put restrictions on the version of which, and the moment at which, articles are allowed to be put in such repositories. Funding bodies that insist on Open Access often do not accept such restrictions. The ‘real Open Access’, according to the publishers, is therefore Gold Open Access, which gives access to the published article beginning from the moment of publication. Gold Open Access depends on a fee being paid on behalf of the author(s), unless a fee waiver is in place. Diamond, or Platinum, Open Access gives immediate access to the published article without requiring such payment; instead, the journal’s running costs are covered by major funders (for instance, universities or science foundations) and voluntary contributions. Diamond Open Access is still relatively rare, but we will dedicate a few words to it towards the end.

Continue to read the full article (Jul 2023) with further main points on:

  • No Such Thing as a Free Article
  • Gold Open Access: Shifting the Paywall
  • Potential Dark Side:
    • Limiting Access for Authors
    • Authors Losing the Freedom to Choose where to Submit
    • Privileging Institutions Who Can Pay?
    • From Curation to Mass Production
  • The Hybrid Model Does Not Solve All Issues
  • Diamond Open Access as the Panacea?
  • A Call for Further Discussion

Blogpost is a re-use of an article with the permission of the authors Prof. Sarah Nouwen and Prof. Grainne De Burca (EUI LAW Department and EJIL, ICON, London Review of International Law) of Open Access: No Closed Matter, Published online on 13 July 2023.