Open access journal publishing – the change is coming

Updated 2015

This is about publishing academic articles, and where and how this should happen.

Working in a university with up to 40% of my time devoted to research, it is nice to publish work that people appreciate and read, and this is also necessary to retain your place in a research university. I’ve published in a few academic  journals that have quite high standards, as well as writing in books and online outlets. I never really considered the ethics of publishing until recently. Most of the main journals are still run by big publishers, like Springer, Elsevier. I sign the copyright to the article away to them on publication. They prepare then sell the journals, either singly or in bulk packages, to university libraries and other institutions. So if you are a member of the public you have no access to most articles of this type – but you can buy an individual article from them online, usually for $20-30 each. For example, in Geoforum, a note of appreciation for editor Hilary Backhouse, not even an article,  will cost you $19.95 to download! For university people, you have to hope your university has bought that journal from the publisher and stocks it online or in hard copy.

Some academics, particularly junior ones, feel they have to (or actually they need to) publish in the top journals that are owned by the major publishers and to assure their careers, and to get professional advancement. And sometimes, an article just ‘fits’ best with one of these journals.  In North America there is the specific hurdle of preparing a dossier for tenure after 6 years in the job,  for which you need a solid research portfolio before being considered for a permanent contract. Senior gatekeepers in disciplines often do not always appreciate that a brilliant piece of work can be published outside the top journals.

Thinking hard about publishing

George Monbiot’s populist comments in 2011 prompted me to think hard about academic journal publishing. He accuses the main publishers of making excessive profits and locking up research outputs. He does not spare his criticism – they are ripping off academics by charging for material that was produced by them, then selling it back to them at high cost, through their libraries. And as a believer in peer-reviewed literature, Monbiot points out that the public cannot even check his sources for his article because they can’t get behind a publisher’s paywall to do so!

The Open Access debate ramped up when a bunch of mathematicians pointed  out, around the same time,  that Elsevier, in particular, was worthy of a boycott until they made our work more available, more accessible, and cheaper.  The campaign (Cost of Knowledge)  has argued quite cogently that this company charged very high prices for journals (particularly in Maths), and these costs were locking up their work only to people who had access through their institutions (even if the work was publicly or taxpayer funded). The campaign, which has attracted over 14,000 signatures,  was partially successful for maths with some journal price reductions later put in place, and opening up of some more OA articles from archives.However the campaign flagged as of late 2013,and in 2015 there is little monitoring or movement.

One great quote by  Roberto Alamino on the Cost of Knowledge:   “I wonder why the scientific community took so long to notice what was happening… we were supposed to be the smart guys…”  Quite. And in fact, over the decades and with the arrival of advanced computer software, publishers have less work to do and yet prices at the point of sale have increased. The movement that this campaign has inspired been dubbed the “Academic Spring“, a great turn of phrase. Mike Taylor has called publishing behind a paywall “immoral”, which has made people think. Nature, one of the hardest journals to get published in, launched an issue and a page devoted exclusively to the OA debate in March 2013. An entire Board just resigned. Scott Aaronson’s thoughts are priceless.

Furthermore, through 2011 and 2012 there were some high profile announcements from Harvard University, and the Russell Group in the UK, among others, about the crippling bills they were getting from the major publishers to stock their journals in their libraries (electronically or in paper copies). The large profit margins of the journals and Elsevier were again mentioned. Some publishers, including one I work with, do at least offer cheaper deals for subscriptions by developing country universities. There is some debate about this.

The Elsevier campaign has had some partial wins (eg in maths), but Elsevier have not responded by dramatically reducing their journal costs across-the-board, or by allowing authors to retain copyright for its ‘conventional’ journals.  They have responded in smaller ways – e.g. at Geoforum journal, they have offered some incentives and prizes to young authors, after the editors published an open letter asking exactly what value for money they were getting from using this publisher (see also Nick Blomley’s 2006 editorial). For comparison,  a Melbourne  presentation from Oct 2012 by an Elsevier staffer gave a company line – the various protests are not mentioned at all, nor the high charges made to convert an article to OA.  Fortunately, in the UK (the Finch report in mid 2012, and the aid agency DfID) and in the USA (White House report 2013 and NIH rules, and here), there is growing movement by western governments to  make publicly funded  research available in open access form, although governments are mostly unwilling to pay Gold open access fees to commercial publishers, which is upsetting universities worried that will have to fund some of these themselves. Implications for one academic field in the UK  summarised here by Lee Jones (Aug 2013). The Finch report may actually benefit publishers, if publishing fees are paid to their OA journals, as this article  argues.

The publishers are certainly not happy about all aspects of this, and Elsevier were widely condemned in the US in 2012 for resisting this and related measures (but had to withdraw this stance). In 2013, Taylor&Francis delayed publication of an article in Prometheus: Critical Studies in Innovation criticising commercial publishing models. Read it here. Publishers are concerned about more content being forced to appear online for free, but surely the move is inexorable, folks? The US will henceforth demand material from its US government grants become publicly available after one year (the initial discussion was suggesting only six months embargo, but anyway…). The same has happened in Canada for health research  (see comment below). There is an argument that only highly selective journals “filter” articles that are really important, but this is hard to prove and may be changing. A recent 2013 paper by Cook et al on climate science consensus  in the online Environmental Research Letters immediately reached an international audience – journalists and the public could access it.

My role

My role in all of this? I have made a few interventions online.

  • Phil Steinberg and I have disagreed about whether to donate free or cheap labour to the big journals – I am prepared to give it a miss until the issues are resolved, but he will stick with it. (see the bottom of the page) None of us like overcharging by publishers. What constitutes overcharging is another debate. Read on.
  • Here is a discussion in the Times Higher and on crit-geog-forum
  • And at the LH Martin Institute
  • and in the Sydney Morning Herald  (paywall imminent)

But also I am a managing editor of the Journal of Political Ecology, one of the oldest online journal in the social sciences, started by former colleagues at the University of Arizona. I got the job when at the University of Arizona in 2003, and have continued it in Australia. Since we charge authors nothing and the readers nothing either, and the website is kindly hosted by the University of Arizona, we are a “Gold” Open Access journal that places no restrictions on readership.  I have been asked what it costs to post up an article on the Journal website – the answer is about $200 if I do it in the working week, and sometimes more if I edit the grammar and English (you could factor in the writing time of the author as well I suppose). All the work is done on a 13 inch laptop, often at the weekend.  Casey Walsh, the other editor handling manuscripts, is I am sure little different. Referees kindly work for free. My costing is on Ed Carr’s website.

In Feb 2013 I was at a seminar on open access publishing organised by John Wiley publishers in Melbourne. Many journal editors were there and I met some nice people. It is clear (to me) that the writing is on the wall for major publishers sticking to the “reader pays and we retain copyright” model. The public, especially the internet savvy public, will not bear it much longer and dissent in the ranks of researchers and academics is also growing, concerned with copyright allocation and high costs. The wide dissemination of copyrighted material from journals is also growing, because you can’t police the internet to stop that. Try Google Scholar and search for something you are after, and see the PDF copies that often crop up. Governments realise this too as they demand open  publishing of funded papers, government reports and some datasets.

Some at the Melbourne meeting thought that publishing companies are  going to have to shift over to “author pays” (commercial open access) rather than “readers pay” (the current model). But currently publishers are charging ridiculous amounts for the former –  if you want your article in a conventional journal to be made open access on the journal’s website.  For making an article open access in an otherwise closed-access journal – something up to $3,000 (up to 1700 pounds) per paper. This is insane, as Ed Carr points out. Fortunately some new journals are waiving such costs, which are subsidised from elsewhere – see Asia & Pacific Policy Studies published by Wiley which is a good deal. And in March 2013, Elsevier launched two new OA Gold climate journals with no costs for one year here.

Currently the Journal of Political Ecology undercuts almost everybody, because it is produced not to make money but just to put stuff out that the journal team thinks is important and well presented.  Goodness knows where we are in any rankings, but we do quality control just like everybody else. Other journals have a similar ethos, ACME included. We are not chasing a quick buck. The content of the journals is the stuff that we do and believe in.

For the moment all my work goes on to my website (another way to insure open access), as it has since 1995. I still work with conventional journals and sit on editorial boards, and the best in most disciplines are unfortunately still published that way, but I can’t see the current system holding out for much longer than 5-10 years.

The OA caution

The possibility of making money by running online journals is not confined to major publishers. Now we have the internet, anybody can do it – set up a website, choose a journal name, and off you go. For the list of journals that are bringing a bad name to Open Access publishing,  by seeing it just as a commercial opportunity, see  Jeffrey Beall’s list – and . These are companies or individuals who have realised they can offer rapid publication for academics, by charging them for publishing a paper in some newly established journal.  These are not serious efforts in most cases and some will not last long. Others may survive, but check carefully.

Those on Beall’s list (Beall now has an article about his work in Nature!) are sometimes flagrant moneymakers and poor quality, and he says may be 5–10% of the total OA offering, but the standard publishing model that locks your stuff up behind a pay wall and holds the copyright isn’t all that sustainable either, even if the quality control is better. As governments are cottoning on to this lark and telling academics they have to make their work open access if it is a  study funded by taxpayers, we are set for a major upset in the publishing world.

What to do?

If you are reading this and are desperate to get hold of an article that is locked behind a paywall, please just write directly to the author. They are allowed to mail you back the PDF copy if there is one. Academics used to operate this system by sending authors  little postcards asking for reprints, up until a few years ago…now we have email. It works. If you are an author, “Green OA” is where you just post up a preprint copy online  (the version of a paper that is sent off to the publisher) often on a university eprints site. That version is always your intellectual property. And many publishers will let you post some version or other on a personal webpage. An article posted on the internet for free gets more hits and usually more citations (according to a big Southampton University study), especially if picked up by Google Scholar.

So, there is an adverse political economy of open access operating, and it is slowly working itself out. The present system is all about money, and to a certain extent about power and control as well (a debate in Political Geography, now unfree). The big changes to modes of publishing have already happened with music. Think about that story. Now stuff circulates freely via MP3,  and the cat is out of the bag. You hardly need a music  label  if you have the money to record on your own. It’s bad that copyright is frequently ignored, but music gets heard, and there are some benefits to artists  that way. I don’t download music (or videos) myself, but I have witnessed the complete downfall of the major record labels and CD shops (bad) over 10 years, and the establishment of file servers and online outlets for ITunes etc. allowing more music to circulate easily (good). The quality of music has not suffered but the labels have, because so many artists can now just do their own thing.

Transpose this to academic journal publishing? Hopefully a more controlled and regulated change will emerge for articles and journals. In the same way as for music, the quality of a written article will not suffer if it becomes more accessible.  Of course, Beer (2012) notes the parallels to music and reminds us that algorithms may help determine what pops up for us to ‘like’  when searching for material, and this is not really ‘democratic’ so we should be careful with open access. Viral-marketing academics could rise to the top of a greasy pole run by automated search engines. What we need:

  • Gatekeepers in universities (tenure committees, promotions committees, research committee chairs, Heads) need to realise that open access journal publishing is as good, if not better, than the present mainstream alternatives. Please read the work on its merit, rather than looking at the journal title. Also a  book reviewed for an open access publisher by several top academics can be just as good as one that went through the same process with a major University Press.
  • Gatekeepers in universities need to recognise that working on journals is part of our jobs. It takes time, brings prestige, and is part of service and research activity. Not all employers acknowledge this work or count it towards increments or promotion. If greater recognition were to happen, publishing and refereeing would be so much easier. The loop between production, distribution, and consumption would be closed.
  • Publish where you think it is best (or quickest, or most ethical) to publish. Not where peer pressure asserts it is in your interest. We are not there yet – few are able or willing to do this.
  • Get commercial publishers to have OA publication options for authors in existing journals (if you need to publish in them) in the $100-500 range, per paper. Enough to provide for page layups and checking, and server space and management, and low enough that an average academic could actually afford to pay.
  • Support the OA sector in working out its pricing. Variation is currently wide, for reasons that are unclear. Solomon and Björk calculate an average fee of US$906 (with an upper of almost $4,000!)  fee to author, which is too much in my view. van Noorden in Nature (2013) has some good price data. The prices at Sage Open were good ($99, social science startup journal, up to $395 in 2015); at PLOS Currents: Disasters and ACME they are free; at Ecology & Society  and ERLhope somebody else is paying (US$975 and $1600, but they are at least  linked to professional societies).  Journals in the $1500-$3000 range, forget it for most people unless you have grants (costs are a live issue with research funders). See Roger Clarke’s paper on costings and another on 6 month embargo costs*.
  • Realise that university libraries are solid places to host electronic journals in perpetuity, as part of their expanded mission in the internet age.  They can bypass the commercial publishers. Failing that, good editors can keep an archive going of their journals, and backed up. It is not that hard.

Brian Martin’s 2012 note on OA has another suitable list of recommendations.


Still we are sucked in, and I was for a decade, to the idea that there is little ethics for authors to consider when they are publishing, and getting a spot in a good journal is a legitimate aim without engaging your conscience at all. A radical position (perhaps denied early career scholars) is to leave behind some of the big publishers entirely, at least until they reduce their Gold open access fees, and don’t charge libraries as much. Or some will ignore publisher’s copyright to the material (which is of course how the world works these days, with Google Scholar, personal web pages, Twitter and the like) and get it out there via other means.”  SB, source highlighted

*The issue of journals supported by professional societies requires a whole other discussion.

Update June 2013

See here for publisher’s responses in the US to the Obama legislation authorising open access after 1 year for federally funded research. Their CHORUS proposal will direct searches to their own articles.

Oct 28 2013 At the LSE – high powered discussion about humanities and social science OA

January 2015. A new initiative at the University of California Press is interesting. Reviewers and editors of OA journals are paid a small amount of the APC for a new journal to ramp up their participation. Money is also vired between disciplines, some of which have little money to meet such charges. .

Beer D. 2012. Open access and academic publishing: Some lessons from music culture. Political Geography 31(8)479-480.

Nov 2014 France pays money to Elsevier in a block transfer for all public universities.



December 7, 2012 · 8:19 am

14 responses to “Open access journal publishing – the change is coming

  1. Pingback: Who are the radical academics today? | simonbatterbury

  2. Christopher Lyon

    Thanks, good post. You may already be aware that in Canada, CIHR (Can. Institutes for Health Research, the national public health research granting body) as of this year mandates open access within 12 months for research that it funds.

    There’s also an initiative within the Tri-council (CIHR, plus SSHRC and NSERC) to consolidate policies and procedures so it may be that these granting agencies adopt similar policies. This has the potential to be pretty significant given the large amount of work done with public grant money in Canada.

  3. Quynh Le

    Thank you! I like this discussion. Publishing hurdles can also kill innovation and creativeness which are important aspects of scientists’ work.

  4. Twitter post

  5. Patrick Bond and Oliver Meth
    “So too do neoliberal university administrators value,
    above all, formal 8000 word articles in peer-reviewed and state-approved journals (which for downloading from commercial sites can run above $30 each), and in the process devalue non-listed journal articles, book chapters and even books. The whole system stinks. One of the ironies is that if you start an open-access journal that is much cheaper to generate knowledge, you might get listed amongst the various for-profit scammers who have proliferated bad (non-reviewed) journals in recent years.” Jan ’12

  6. Pingback: Saved by a laptop? Bike meets truck on Alexandra Parade, Melbourne |

  7. Pingback: List of OA journals in my field – geography, political ecology |

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