So What do you think of Open Access Journals? Ever Submit to One?


I get these mailers from Sage and other academic presses a lot asking me to submit to open access journals. I have never done so, because SSCI peer-review is so absolutely central to what we do. But I feel really bad about that actually, because I absolutely detest paywalls.

I am a big supporter of open access. Like most academics, I think, I find it absolutely preposterous that journal publishers charge $30 to get to an article. It goes without saying that most students have limited means and will not pay that (nor should they). Such an ridiculous fee also punishes people in LDCs who don’t get access to JSTOR and the rest.

Barring some strong countervailing reason, like clearly defined national security concerns, knowledge should be open; it is a public good. While academics want to get paid like everyone else, no one joined this profession to get rich. We do it, because we enjoy the life of the mind and want to share ideas with others. I’m sure you’re rolling your eyes right now, but it’s true. Academics would rather win an argument and have you read their work than get paid. And they will willingly drain the fun out of everything to just convince you they’re correct about something. If we get paid along the way for that, that’s great. But most of are not doing this for the money. In fact, that is probably one reason we get no royalties on our articles. We don’t do it for that, and we probably don’t care enough to organize to push for it.

In sum, publishers simultaneously wildly overcharge end users while paying zippo to providers – all while violating a central academic tenet – that knowledge-production is not primarily about money. Yuck. This has to stop.

But we do of course need tenure and promotion, and the SSCI, especially the very top ones, are just about the excusive road to that. You may like blogging and teaching and mentoring, but peer-review is gold. Hence I never submitted to an open access journal. I don’t really like that, but I wonder what the answer is. Does anyone know?

15 thoughts on “So What do you think of Open Access Journals? Ever Submit to One?

  1. The last years in my field have seen a huge increase in scientific articles – especially from Chinese and Indian researchers. At the same time, the expectations in terms of output has increased in general so that the typical researcher now produces more information and cuts it up in smaller units.

    Hence, articles get more numerous and contain less information. Moreover, the quality has decreased due to a) the newbies not knowing really what is worth publishing and b) the higher amount of information published means that more junk is published.

    I get advertisements from – mostly Indian – publishers regularly offering me to publish my research guaranteed within 30 days with often “new” reviewing procedures. Considering the short time-frame of this, it can only mean that more junk is accepted, especially, if they advertize “open-access” as “you-pay-yourself-for-putting-your-junk-on-our-website”.

    In the past, I published 3 articles in 2 open access journals. One of them was pretty unprofessionally managed and I never even got proofs of my articles (you can clearly see that when looking at the layouted quality of the article). The other one was very professional (strict peer review, professional layouting, …) and by now has an impact factor, which clearly reflects this – in the JCR-ranking it is within the top 20%.

    Considering these experiences, I would publish in the second journal again, while I would use the first one only as a trashcan for data that I publish only to make a student or funding organization happy.


  2. What is interesting to me, Robert, is that so few theses or articles have been written about writing theses or articles– I know of very little research or texts on the history or problems of academic publishing outside of the odd professor’s diatribe or journalism on, say, the Elsevier boycott of last year. So anything we say must be grounded in the fact that we don’t know much about the long-term historical problems of academic publishing.

    That being said, it does seem that there is a recent explosion of profit-based and predatory rubbish journals, perhaps much of it because of the internet. To me the Sage journals are highly questionable and I stay away from anything which is not A&HCI in my field (English Literature). This is, I think, the result of this long-entrenched system where publishers expect money for accepting and/or publishing articles. While we ought to concede that pulp and paper for these very low-run print journals is expensive, I agree that charging money to access scholarship, whether it’s (rarely) a straight-up $30 or (more often) a university library subscription paid for eventually by everyone, is unethical and stands in the way of better work being done.

    People still need to make a living. I don’t agree with your binary that professors shouldn’t dirty their pristine hands with lucre. I expect to do work and make a decent income also. So I’m wary in practice of the nice-sounding idea that information should cost nothing, as inevitably people will value its writers accordingly.

    How could these problems be solved of remunerating writers while making information as freely available as possible? In the short term, I think we ought to differentiate between peer-edited and open-access. They aren’t opposites; we can have open access to journals which are still peer edited as much as any other journal. When I review articles I am not paid. Perhaps as print journals gradually die and go online universities can simply cut out the publishing middlemen and pay article writers and journal databases directly.

    In the long term, I think Jaron Lanier’s idea (in “Who owns the future?”) of an internet driven by micropayments is a compelling one, where people would simply become used to making tiny PayPal-esque payments to access content, and would in return receive micropayments when they provide content to SNS sites or to their own blogs. As you mentioned, you receive nothing for your blog (and I receive nothing for mine!) and this should be remedied someday, as to me what you do is valuable. Ken :>


    • I’d actually be interested to try, but they aren’t recognized by the discipline. The real problem is publish-or-perish. It forces everyone to write, even if they aren’t really good at it. And so there’s been an explosion of journals no one reads, which exist solely for us to say we’re in print.


    • While I agree to many things you say, I see a significant problem about open access journals.

      Currently, they have little reputation in comparison to the established giants. Considering the output of East Asian labs and their craziness for ranking (making the impact factor a primary criterion for selecting the journal to publish in), it is unlikely that any scientist from these countries will be willing to publish in such journals, if they could get their data published in an established journal.

      Working myself at a Korean University, my experience is that my colleagues’ value for any paper I publish is directly proportional to its impact factor (fortunately this works to my advantage, as I work in the area in the department where high impact factor publications are relatively easy to get). This ranking craziness goes so far that one of my colleagues who publishes mainly in an area, where the impact factors are low, considers changing his field to get higher impact papers.

      Personally, I wouldn’t mind publishing in journals, which are not printed (I cannot remember when I last went to the library to actually look an article, must have been during my PhD). The main point is that I want my work to get noticed by the peers who are interested in it. Actually, the impact factor is a good indicator for this. Recently, I got statistics from one publisher about the downloads of my articles and I found that roughly number of citations times 130 is the number of downloads.

      Hence, publishing in obscure journals, especially unidexed ones (by Web of Science, Scopus, …) means that nobody will find your work unless explicity looking for your articles. These indexing services are another problem in the scientific progress, as they are 1. very expensive and 2. they decide which journal is worth being taken into their index (SCI, SCIE, …), which largely determines the fate of this journal.


  3. These are useful comments. They force me to think about or modify my thoughts on this.

    I suppose though, lacking the total picture, that saying the problem with open-access journals is that they currently have little reputation doesn’t describe an essential problem. In other words, do open-access journals necessarily have to have a low critical opinion? What if the Journal of Politics decided they would have total open access by cutting their print version, while retaining exactly the same peer review standards? Could they retain the same impact factor?

    To me the problem with the dodgy developing-nation or profit-based journals is not that they are open access, but rather that they have no effective peer editing, as their business model is based on payments from authors and not payments from readers. Thus they have a dishonest incentive to accept anything. Perhaps the challenge is finding another way of making it possible for journals to meet costs. Again, the internet seems both a blessing and a curse in that it makes dissemination of articles cheap but also imposes few limits on how many articles can be accepted or how often an “issue” can be created.

    I maintain that inevitably there will be a means of cheap or pseudo-free access to academic articles, paid for somehow–hopefully by universities or by a micropayment system which I’ve mentioned. I’m not philosophically opposed to paid articles, I just agree with Robert that the prices are extremely unreasonable. It should be possible in the near future for libraries that wish to have print versions to cheaply run off their own. This would make print distribution nearly unnecessary and ought to greatly lower costs.

    As well, I agree that all of this just dances around the real problem that our academic model presently relies far too heavily on publishing, with much of it superfluous. In my discipline so much has already been done that we have increasingly ridiculous articles about Shakespeare writing his plays with help from space aliens. I don’t know how academia can bring itself back to a focus on teaching, especially with so much of the university system in flux and challenged by MOOCs and other technologies and funding crises. I can only hope in our lifetimes that an improved model will come to light. Ken :>


    • “To me the problem with the dodgy developing-nation or profit-based journals is not that they are open access, but rather that they have no effective peer editing, as their business model is based on payments from authors and not payments from readers.”

      I think you nailed the key point.

      “What if the Journal of Politics decided they would have total open access by cutting their print version, while retaining exactly the same peer review standards? Could they retain the same impact factor?”

      My guess is that they would increase their impact factor, as more people could read and consequently cite their articles.

      The thing speaking against total open access is the cost attached to layouting. While I don’t think that this is such a problem in humanities, in science with many equations, special characters, and graphs, the layouting is difficult and probably would cost several hundred $. I think that switching totally to online publication can reduce the cost of printing to buying a better server, but the layouting stays the same.

      BTW: in the past I had trouble with a famous publisher outsourcing their layouting to a dodgy developing nation service, who caused lots of trouble – they seemed to be unaware of hyphenation rules and even started changing my text. This kind of behavior can ruin the reputation of a journal significantly – the authors don’t know whether they can trust that their work is what is printed.

      BTW: I never paid for publishing an article and never will.


  4. This seems to be a hot topic recently.,0,1228881.column#axzz2jHEwsu00

    partly related: “Is there something wrong with the scientific method?”

    Rather than evaluating academics according to how much and where they publish, I think there should be a quota on how much one can publish!

    Given it’s now easier for obscure journals to be available online there should be less reason to publish in some mega famous journal rather than in a more specialist journalist, which nevertheless would still have recognition from peers because they should be contributing there themselves.


    • I disagree with the “quota”-idea. What could happen is that researchers cannot e.g. graduate a PhD-student anymore, because their university requires a certain amount of publications and the professor has already used up this year’s quota or wants to reserve it for more important publications.

      The problem is related to giving researchers too much incentive to publish and especially in high-impact journals. The reason is the ranking-craziness, which started in US and was very well adopted by East Asia and is increasingly becoming important in Europe as well.

      The only way how to stop this, is to reduce the ranking-craziness – the right place to start with this would be the funding agencies, which have the power to educate their scientific communities.


  5. I did once publish in a partially-subsidized open-access journal in Korea. I submitted, was accepted, and then was pointed to a part of their website I didn’t see which indicated that authors need to carry some of the costs. It wasn’t much, but I still don’t feel good about it. They did have reasonably good peer review. I suppose there are gradations to these things.

    I also don’t think publication limits would be workable, leaving aside the matter of whether they are fair. How could an industry that can’t even police criminal and suspicious journals possibly enforce limits? Would it be by page count–how would reviews or theses be weighed?–how would agreement ever possibly be achieved world-wide or even country-wide?

    Again, I don’t think open access is the problem, and I think some form is the way of the future after its financing model is solidified. Neither do I think large numbers of papers in itself is a bad thing. The larger issue is that there are too few jobs and too much pressure to publish, enabling journals to take monetary advantage of writers. How else could it possibly make sense that scholars are willing to not only write difficult papers for free, but pay to get them in print?

    I wish I could propose a solution to this. I have none. Right now even adjuncts are publishing out of desperation. I expect in the next few decades standards will improve as fewer writers write, only because there will simply be fewer professors in the west as students avoid the career (we have an actual literary genre now about discouraging people from going to grad school!). But I think at least we should identify the disease as the problem, and not the symptoms.

    What actually bothers me more than shady open access is the incredibly wasteful amount of hours and money applicants must dedicate to job seeking, and the annoyance their professors must have at writing mountains of confidential references–with the result of university hiring committees who can’t even acknowledge the application. Are companies like Interfolio which make money off this any better than SAP? But that might be another column for Robert…


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