open access for who?

IMG_1090Beautiful Uppsala.

A lot has been written about the push for open access publishing in academia. In case you’re not familiar with it, it means publishing in journals where content is available, free of charge, online, to everyone. This is very different than the traditional journal model, where libraries pay exorbitant fees to publishers for access to the journals, and if you aren’t working through one of those libraries you will hit a paywall where access to a single article is likely to cost $30-45 if not more.

In a lot of ways I feel like I can’t add much: it’s a great idea, it helps science be more accessible, it often helps data be more accessible, it opens the conversation. It’s another high cost, borne to authors instead of to libraries. It’s confusing how the journals make all the money no matter what way we publish.

I fully support the idea of open access, and most of my papers so far have been published in open-access journals. That includes one, about climate change effects on a seemingly unassuming (but actually ecologically and reproductively fascinating) arctic/alpine cushion plant, Silene acaulis. That paper went on to be one of the most highly-accessed articles on the Springer’s catch-all open access journal, SpringerPlus. To date it has over 4,000 accesses, according to the article metrics. Would this have been more if it were published in a different journal? I have no idea, but it is much more popular than I had expected.

Based partly on this positive experience, my masters supervisor (Juha Alatalo) and I decided to publish in primarily open-access journals. (I did not make the same decision about my other work, and have a different manuscript based on my research in Davos submitted at a traditional journal.) Which brings me to the unique question I have: how do I pay for it?

In traditional journals, there might not be a fee to get a manuscript published. There might be, but more likely (at least in the better journals) there is a fee for color figure printing, or perhaps a per-page fee. In open access, that goes out the window. Because journals can’t charge libraries fees to access these manuscripts, instead they charge the authors. Fees usually run greater than $1000, sometimes up to $3000.

Some departments and lab groups work this into their budgets. Some researchers also include a category on their grant applications to cover publication fees. However, some funding agencies also explicitly do not pay for publication fees. If you are a researcher in between grants, money might be tight. Or, like me, you might be a graduate student working to publish your first first-authored paper. It would take more than a month’s worth of my masters scholarship payment just to pay the open access fees. And, like me, you might work in a small lab group that does not have additional funding to easily cover these sorts of things.

I looked around and found that many universities (not all, but a chunk of the R1 schools in the U.S.) have special funds to cover open-access publishing. Just via google, here are a few examples: Harvard; University of Calgary; Cornell; University of Arizona.

The University of Heidelberg in Germany has a funny way of describing the rationale for their fund: “Heidelberg University supports researchers who are willing to publish articles in open access journals with a publishing fund to cover article processing charges.” Are willing. As if it’s some burden.

PLoS One even has a list of universities which have funds to cover PLoS (a journal consortium which stands for Public Library of Science) publishing. That’s really nice on first read, but then you think about it more and it seems less “open”: the publishing house itself is referring people to ways to convince third parties to pay the publishing house.

It also, and I am being petty and jealous here, makes it much easier for some researchers to publish in open access journals than others. The university where I did my masters, Uppsala University in Sweden, does not have such a fund. During the time when I wrote the paper I am seeking to publish, I was supported only by a small scholarship from my masters program. I received no funding from my supervisor or his lab. It’s not like I have leftover grant money with which I can pay publication fees.

Being in Sweden, home of Pirate Bay and the Pirate Party, Uppsala of course loves the idea of making science publicly available. Sweden has a program,, which promotes open access. Trolling through the Uppsala library archives, I am unable to find any evidence of funding to cover open access fees, but I did find a powerpoint presentation which stated, awkwardly, that there was at the moment no available funding to cover these expenses even though they really would like researchers to publish open-access.

Instead, Uppsala has a database called DiVA, which they call an open-access repository. This type of “repository” is listed as one of the main goals of Up until recently, students were required to submit their theses to DiVA, so that they could be read by all; departments then realized that actually, if a student tried to then publish some part of that thesis, the journals might balk since it had already actually been published. When I finished my masters, we were first told to submit our theses, and then told not to because the university had to sort out some legal issues.

There are also published articles in DiVA, and researchers are encouraged to upload their work which is published in journals. There are a few problems with this: copyright on journal articles is complex, and you aren’t necessarily allowed to “make” an article open access by posting it online. The journal owns the copyright, even if you own the data. As such, there are not so many full-text articles in DiVA. If I do a keyword search for the major ecological concept I am studying in my PhD, dendritic networks, nothing comes up. If I search for “dendritic”, I get some clinical medicine articles.

And DiVA is Uppsala’s crowning library achievement, in some sense. It is heavily promoted within the university, and touted as their contribution to open access.

(It also has other functions. “All publications by researchers and staff at Uppsala University should be registered in DiVA,” the FAQ reads. “The reason for this is to produce a complete picture of what is being published by staff at the university. In addition departments can use this information to facilitate the evaluation and distribution of funds.” There are many records of publications which do not have the actual full-text articles attached to them.)

It’s pretty clear that while DiVA might be useful for many applications, it is not the same thing as an open-access journal. And if you want your work to be accessed by all, Uppsala – consistently ranked in the top 100 universities in the world, and the second-best in Sweden – is not going to help you.

Here’s another example of how I’m stuck: the Ecological Society of America, which publishes multiple highly-regarded journals, waives page fees (for the first 15 pages per year, at least) for members who lack grant money, for its flagship publications Ecology, Ecological Applications, and Ecological Monographs. For their open-access journal Ecosphere, members get a reduced price for publication: $1250 instead of $1500. There are no grant funds available to further cover costs for researchers who lack grant money.

And so, I’d like to ask: open access publishing is frequently discussed in very idealistic terms, with lofty goals for the future. But is it so egalitarian? If you lack funding, for instance if you are early in your career – not coincidentally the point where open access to your work might be extremely beneficial – there seems to be a clear message: open access is not for you. Finding a broader audience for your publication might be unattainable, as is your hope of sharing knowledge with all.


7 thoughts on “open access for who?

    • Unfortunately, though, it doesn’t matter if 2/3 of them do: it matters if the ones you want to publish in do. In my field, most do charge a fee, usually a very large one. The fear about publishing in a general-interest journal is that the might people might not see the article because they aren’t looking. We have had that experience with one paper as well. Hence, most people in my field, when they do opt for open access, want to publish in either (1) a “traditional journal” but pay an extra fee to make it open access; (2) a well-regarded general journal with an impact factor, like PLoS One; or (3) a subject-specific journal like Ecosphere. The fact that Principy Èkologii , published in Russian, is open access and has no fee is not very relevant to me.

      • I suppose that one could try to haggle down those fees. Some say it is possible? however I have no experience with that. Also one might include publication fees in any grant application that they make, as it seems to be the cost of doing “academia” these days. Further, some libraries or research departments offer funds which one can apply for. Still I understand the dilemma.
        best of luck! Jo

  1. I don’t know about the intricacies of academia, but at least when you are faculty, publication is a requirement of the job, isn’t it? If so, the university should fund publication, at least up to the quantity that is required for continued employment.

    I work outside of academia, but when my employer requires me to do something, the employer funds it. I find it hard to imagine my employer saying “We require you to take this training class and get this certification to stay in your current job, but you’re going to have to find outside funding for it.” No way.

    • Unfortunately, Joy, that pretty much is how it is 😦 Some journals do not have publication charges, so it’s up to you to either publish in those journals, or find your own money. Some department do have money, I guess, but it’s certainly not guaranteed and takes away from the democracy of science – those who have extra money have vastly different publication opportunities, even if they manage to do exactly as good science.

  2. I had some interesting experiences where I have had to explain to my community collaborators that I actually have to pay to get things published. They automatically assumed we get really rich by publishing (like writing a book right?)… I still don’t think I’ve convinced all of them why I have to save a large chunk of my grant just to publish my results. I have many of the same feelings as you about open access:

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