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Contemporary Concepts in Publishing

Going Open Access: Four Factors to Consider for Your Next Research Paper

 

Nathan Boutin, Associate Editor

June 2021

With the growing call for open access (OA) scientific literature, journals across all disciplines are rushing to offer OA options. Thus, journals using the OA model have entered the market in great numbers. While some publications are still only offering subscription-based models, many publishing giants, such as Elsevier and Springer, are giving authors the choice to publish through an OA model or the traditional model. These “hybrid” journals give authors the benefit of choice but choosing between traditional journal publishing and OA can be a daunting task. Which option is best for your research? Below, we explore how OA is giving authors greater publishing speed and visibility for their paper; however, this may come at a cost.

Visibility

Publishing in an OA journal means that your research will enjoy the benefits of great visibility. There is no barrier to entry for readers, so any scientist or interested person can read, download, and use the content. This option is best for scholars who want their work to reach the most people possible.

For traditional journals, this barrier to entry has a massive influence on the readership of submitted material. Only those readers with a subscription to the journal will be able to access the content, so the audience reached is lower than the OA option. Luckily, many university libraries have subscriptions to a wide array of academic journals, so students and faculty can access this research. For the public at large, however, the cost can be significant. While your readership will likely decrease with traditional publishing, this may not be an issue for papers in highly technical and/or niche fields.

Cost

The publishing journal needs to make money to continually support staff, pay for physical printing costs, and maintain the vast backlog of previous journal editions. Thus, the journal must generate revenue through either the consumer (reader) or the researcher. Let’s be real, though—getting published is expensive, regardless of your choice. To start, submission fees (usually around US $100) are charged as a flat cost to cover peer review and editorial expenses.

For OA journals, the upfront costs may be placed on the researcher and/or their funding institution. An article processing charge can run thousands of dollars, which may understandably be too steep for some authors. For example, Nature recently unveiled its OA option, but it can run the authors over US $11,000 for a single paper! Note that certain journals offer waivers based on ability to pay, but these instances are exceptions to the rule.

In contrast, traditional publishing charges are typically much less than OA or, in some cases, entirely free. Costs will usually be centered around print editions, and per-page charges are common for traditional journals. However, the prospective readers will need a subscription to the journal, which can run hundreds or even thousands of dollars.

In the end, your method of publishing determines who is paying for the bulk of the journal fees. If you cannot afford the OA option, going the traditional route may be a more cost-efficient way of getting your research to the public, but this may hinder the potential visibility of your research.

Speed

If you need to publish in the fastest time possible, which is a concern for many scholars, then the traditional route may not be for you. In addition to the several months it can take to publish any article, traditional publication can add further delays. First, the article needs to be part of a larger issue. Thus, other articles with similar topics need to be received, reviewed, and accepted before the process can move forward. Second, due to space limitations, only a certain number of papers can be printed per issue, which means your paper could be put on the backburner until the journal’s subsequent issue. Third, there are delays caused by printing physical copies. These delays can tack on months to the process depending on how competitive the field is and the journal in question.

Since OA is primarily an online-only effort, there are no tangible materials to slow down the process. Consequently, journals can usually have the paper available to the public in a much shorter span of time. That being said, the publishing process is highly variable, so always check with your target journal before submission if you are on a time crunch and plan accordingly.

Perception

Whether you are succumbing to the resounding drumbeat of “publish or perish” or trying to elevate the perceived quality of your published material, your goals will influence your publishing decision. There is a race to publish papers, and while this is not always a good thing, scholars do what is necessary to have their work accepted because it is necessary for job acceptance, promotions, and other career accolades.

In short, publishing “old school” can be a sign of prestige. There is a misconception that publishing OA represents poor quality, but the existence of reputable journals such as BMC Medicine and Nature Communications that operate under the hybrid publishing model disproves this notion. Still, perception is never completely grounded in reality, so traditional publishing methods may elevate the perceived quality of your work.

Final thoughts

When choosing your publishing method, it is imperative to consider the above factors. It is increasingly common to see the OA publishing model, or at least hybrid offerings, but the main drawback is the cost, especially for authors. Subscription-based models may be more realistic on a budget, but the paywall can severely affect your readership and actual impact of your research. Regardless of the path you take, best of luck on your publishing journey!

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