Open Access vs. Subscription-Based Scientific Publications

Centuries ago, Henry Oldenburg, the secretary of the new Royal Society, used his extensive connections with scientists to initiate the first scientific journal publication, the Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society. Back then, Oldenburg's initiative was aimed at tightening his connections and spreading the scientific word among the Royal Society's members, and so he didn't charge any publication or subscription fees. A few centuries later today's journal publication landscape has exploded to more than 20,000 journals sharing the scientific discoveries of more than six million scientists in academia and industry and generally charging. Yes, the scientific publication niche is a bottomless pot of gold, with more than $9 billion annual revenue (as of 2011) from readers/universities (subscription-based journals) and from the authors themselves (by open-access journals). This is not surprising, since scientific endeavor has never reclined, and with the fierce competition for academic positions, scientific publication rates will likely only increase. The recent decade has seen the rise of the open access journal publications which offer a slightly different concept of peer-reviewed scientific publication to the more traditional subscription-based journals.

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Subscription-Based Journals

This category includes 90% of scientific journals encompassing both top ranking journals and low impact counterpart journals. These journals charge their readers - individuals and universities - and complement their earnings from advertisements, online and on glossy paper. While it is the most veteran and common method of payment, many oppose this method and suggest open access is the best alternative for benefiting science progression. With subscription-based journals, both the content and the review process are given freely by the researchers to the publishing house/journal (and in addition pay for the publication itself, even if it is limited to an online version). In parallel, these researchers (or the hosting universities) pay annual subscriptions to a plethora of journals so their own researchers can stay up to date with current scientific proceedings. Thus, the burden of science making, from the bench work to the end product of a scientific publication falls completely on the scientists, according to Michael Eisen, co-founder of the Public library of Science (PLoS) in a recent special issue by Nature.  Nevertheless, this type of publication approach eliminates conflicts of interest by the publishing journals, since their income comes from the readership and thus their interests and loyalty lie with their audience and not with the publishing scientists.

Open Access Journals

The open access approach is a rather modern concept (with roots planted back in the 1980s) and rests mostly on online publishing. While in part similar to subscription-based journals (authors pay for accepted articles, the content and the peer-review process is produced and conducted by the scientific community), the open access approach differs by enabling free of charge access to the scientific community and to the public (which support scientific research through tax payments). In addition, accepted manuscripts are published online much faster than their subscription-based counterparts. Yet opposition suggests that the open access approach has the potential to hasten submitted manuscript for publication at the expense of quality and scrutinized peer-review or editorial conduct.

In light of the above potential conflicts of interest ("I pay, you publish"), Science magazine recently published a "sting" operation in which a bogus manuscript was submitted to over 300 open access journals and accepted for publication in over 157 journals. The magazine took the effort to map the location of IP addresses of the publishers and their bank accounts, and found them to often be located in different countries, indicating that "most of the publishing operations cloak their true geographic location". It might sound like an excerpt from a new and sophisticated James Bond movie, yet this trend seems to be a truly distressing phenomenon in which peer-review and editorial conduct of many of the sprouting open access journals are not rigorous enough, to say the least. While Science magazine presented a first-rate investigation, it is lacking several subscription-based journals as a control and raises some thoughtful questions regarding how would these journals fare with such a bogus submission.

It is but an irony (and a short-term memory lapse) that a couple of years ago, Science magazine published an article which claimed to identify the first ever micro-organism to incorporate Arsenic (AsO43-) instead of phosphorous (PO43-) in its DNA, proteins and lipids. This article quickly attracted criticism as the scientific community erupted in a blaze of heated discussion both in the scientific and non-scientific arenas.  Interestingly, the manuscript, which boasted an extraordinary claim, was accepted for publication merely a month and seven days post-submission, quite fast for a thorough peer-review, editorial discussion and comments by the authors, especially when such a prestigious journal is involved and such claims are presented.

The opposition to the paper's claims didn't cease and a year and a half later two back-to-back papers (Reaves et. al. and Erb et. al.) were published in Science magazine, both refuting the claims of the original article, and setting a ladder for Science magazine to climb down from the journal's embarrassing disposition. Unlike the first paper, both refuting manuscripts were accepted for publication only six months post-submission, indicating that the people at Science magazine learned from their mistakes.

Prestige and "Flawless" Science

The keystones of scientific existence are soundly collected evidence combined with proper analysis and conclusions presented by its community members. While the "sting" publication sponsored by Science magazine suggests that open access journals are prone to publish manuscripts which lack one of the three above principles, it is clear that such lack of rigorous pre-publication review can take place with even high ranking subscription-based journals. Thus, scientists should be wary when reading a scientific article whether it is published in a high impact journal or in a low impact journal. And scientists wishing to submit their manuscript to an open access journal should first consider the lengthy list of "predatory" publishers before submitting.

What do you think? Will you submit your next article to open access journals?