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Why not open-access journals?

By Nattavud Pimpa - posted Tuesday, 1 May 2012


Knowledge should be free and available to everyone. The free flow of knowledge in society underpins long-term development of all aspects of humanity. Having conducted research in higher education institutions in South East Asia and Australia, I have come to question the amount of money we continuously pay to subscribe to journals of big publishing companies and the value we get in return. It is us, taxpayers, who cover the costs of research (and researchers) in the public education system so why do we also need to pay for these companies to publish the outputs of 'our' research? There is a growing clamour against exclusive approaches to research and scholarship, especially when much of it is funded by taxpayers.

Internet-based peer-reviewed journals, available to all readers with neither restriction nor charge, or "open-access journals", offer an alternative for academics of various disciplines to disseminate ideas and evidence to a wide audience. Open-access journals, with costs covered by publication fees, sponsorships, in-kind contributions, or other sources of support, challenge the traditional subscription model. More than 4,200 open access journals, in a variety of fields, are listed in the directory of open access journals (DOAJ: www.doaj.org).

Last week, The Australian reported that "Harvard University, The world's richest university - and second richest not-for-profit organisation in the world after the Catholic Church - has told staff it can no longer afford to pay for journal subscriptions and they should publish in open access alternatives."

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This is alarming that a preeminent academic institution could be looking to disseminate knowledge gained from research via non-mainstream media in which people (students, university, industry and fellow academics) can read your work freely. Open-access journals following vigorous academic process can be among the most potent sources of knowledge. Journal impact factors are an important consideration. Some open-access journals have received impact factors from Thomson Reuters Scientific (or ISI). The number of open access journals with listed impact factors has increased from 239 in 2004 to almost 400 in 2010. It is expected that the impact of open-access journal can be stronger than traditional journals because of the internet-based nature and, therefore, potential for high citation rates.

One specific condition is crucial. Most open-access journals charge publication fees to academics who submit their papers for potential publication. Some may argue articles can be published in open-access journals with ease by paying the required fee. The quality of journal articles and significance of research are, therefore, questionable.

A thorough search of DOAJ shows an interesting trend among open access-journals in science and social sciences. Most are now operated by universities in non-English speaking countries. These journals are run by different groups of academics who, as a result of their intense interest in their respective disciplines, do not charge publication fees. This provides hope to researchers worldwide, no matter what their financial resources, for unimpeded dissemination of their research findings.

The culture of knowledge dissemination was initially pioneered by the non-academic sector, in particularly during the boom of the dotcom industry. A good example is the site www.onlineopinion.com.au which long has been run for free, notwithstanding financial donations from readers. Or the new way to amalgamate resources among universities and create a forum such as www.conversation.edu.au is vigorous and achievable. Is this not a model which could be adopted by the editorial teams of open-access journals adopt?

One of the key missions among academics is to publish. We are familiar with the culture of academia articulated in the adage 'publish or perish'. Publications in the traditional international journals can (and will) lead you to where you want to be. In Australia, the Australian Research Council (ARC) asks grant applicants to rank their 10 best publications when applying for an ARC research grant. In an interview by The Australian, the ARC CEO, Margaret Sheil, confirmed she did not consider open access appropriate at this time. Critics of ARC's stance point to its "lack of understanding of core issues".

All traditional academic journals have long been controlled by major publishing companies such as Wiley, Sage, Blackwell, Emerald, Elsevier, Kluwer etc. The power they hold is incredible and it does not seem to me that academics have done enough to challenge their power. We need to act in order to change the way we disseminate our academic outputs to the public. Copy right is a factor that contributes to the power of major publishing companies. In the traditional publication culture, authors transfer the copy right of their research papers to the publisher. Most open-access journals, on the other hand, will not ask the author to transfer copy right or intellectual property to the publisher.

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Australia needs a system and leadership which promotes equitable ways we can share more technical and financial resources among public institutions (including universities) nationally to create more open-access journals that are of high quality and become impactful in various academic disciplines. This approach will change the culture of research and publication not only in Australia but globally.

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About the Author

Dr Nattavud Pimoa is an Associate Professor in international business at the School of Management, RMIT University.

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