University Libraries

Open Access Myths

Other takes on OA myths

Peter Suber's "Field Guide to Misunderstandings About Open Access"

April, 2012 Guardian article by Mike Taylor, "Persistent myths about open access scientific publishing"

MIT's Scholarly Publishing office's "Dispelling Myths about Open Access"

Many issues have been raised by publishers and authors to question the Open Access (OA) publishing model. Below, the University Libraries respond to some of the most frequently raised concerns.


MYTH 1: Access is not a problem. Virtually all US researchers have the access they need; what they can't get on campus or from a colleague elsewhere, the library can get for them via interlibrary loan.

University of Minnesota researchers do not have access to all scholarly literature by any means - the subset of journals that is accessible via library subscriptions varies widely from institution to institution, meaning that access barriers are frequently a problem, even for researchers seeking copies from external colleagues. The access situation at institutions which focus primarily on teaching rather than research is particularly bad. Library Journal, in its annual Periodicals Price Survey, predicted that in 2010 journal prices would increase by an average of 7.6%; at a time of economic recession and flat or declining library budgets, this usually translates into journal cancellations.

Furthermore, as many libraries move to electronic journal subscriptions to save money, they must sign license agreements that often forbid them from supplying interlibrary loan copies to other universities. One Medical School faculty member whose interlibrary loan request was denied - due to the University hitting the maximum allowable number of requests for the calendar year -- said: "You have got to be kidding me. Our research is specifically about cytokine therapy in cancer. We have to pay $86 for one article and $35 for another in order to read the literature regarding our research. Something is very wrong!"

MYTH 2: Open access content is not peer reviewed.

Just because a journal article is publicly available without a subscription does not mean it did not go through the traditional peer review process. The Directory of Open Access Journals lists over 4000 titles, and among its selection criteria (http://www.doaj.org/doaj?func=loadTempl&templ=faq#selectioncriteria) is that the journal "should exercise quality control on submitted papers through an editor, editorial board and/or a peer-review system". Even if the entire journal is not publicly available, an author may have elected to retain his/her rights to share a pre-print or post-peer-review version online while still retaining his/her copyright (as is the case with many of the articles available in the University Digital Conservancy -- http://conservancy.umn.edu/).

MYTH 3: The cost of providing Open Access will reduce the availability of funding for research.

At a macro-economic level, a switch to OA publishing would not negatively impact research funding. The 2004 Wellcome Trust report Costs and Business Models in Scientific Research Publishing (http://www.wellcome.ac.uk/stellent/groups/corporatesite/@policy_communications/documents/web_document/wtd003184.pdf) indicates that OA publishing could offer savings of up to 30%, compared to traditional publishing models, while vastly increasing the accessibility of research. There is no reason why the cost of OA publishing should exceed the cost of the current system, since the fundamental process is the same. In fact, OA publishers are leaders in using technology to reduce costs, so the cost of OA publishing to the community will be significantly less than the cost of the system it replaces.

Meanwhile, the increased access to research that is delivered by OA will increase the effectiveness of the research money that is spent, since all research builds on what has gone before it, and is needlessly handicapped if access to previous research is inconvenient, slow, or impossible. In short, funders will get more "bang for their buck".

At the micro-economic level, there will be transitions that need to be carefully managed as the Open Access publishing model grows in economic significance. e.g. since the total cost of publishing scientific articles is roughly proportional to the amount of research to be published, it may make sense for the costs of publishing to be incorporated into research funding grants, rather than being covered by library budgets.


MYTH 4: A high quality journal such as Nature would need to charge authors $15,000-$50,000 in order to move to an Open Access model.

Although media reports failed to mention it, the quotes above make clear that this figure is only claimed to apply to Nature - an extremely special case among the tens of thousands of life science journals. Elsevier confirmed in testimony to the British government that, even with the inefficiencies of publishers' current systems, the cost per article for a typical journal is far lower (between $3,000 to $10,000 per article).

But Nature clearly spends nothing like $15,000-$50,000 on each research article that it publishes. There are several major problems with the calculation that was used:

  1. A significant fraction of Nature's revenue is spent to commission and produce the non-research-article content of the journal (e.g. News & Views articles, book reviews, commentaries, editorials etc.) This non-research content would continue to drive healthy print and online subscription revenue, even if the research articles were made freely accessible online. Since the non-research content (the front-matter) is far more widely read than the research articles themselves, it is far from clear whether making the research articles Open Access would have any negative impact on subscription revenue. In fact, the opposite can be argued.
  2. For the same reason, there is no reason to believe that Nature's impressive advertising revenue would suffer dramatically as a result of Open Access, yet they are assumed to fall to zero in Nature's calculation.
  3. Part of the argument used to justify the high cost per article is that Nature rejects more than 90% of papers submitted, and so has to review more than 10 papers for every one it publishes, and has to bear the entire cost of this. In fact, however, Nature is not that profligate and had already taken steps to address this issue. If a paper is scientifically sound, but is not exceptional or fashionable enough to appear in Nature, it may well be submitted and accepted into one of the next tier of journals in the Nature stable (Nature Cell Biology, Nature Medicine, etc.) without requiring significant additional editorial work or costs.

MYTH 5: Open access threatens academic society publisher revenues needed for other activities in addition to their publishing.

There is no evidence that publishing revenues are declining or at risk due to the growing number of open access policies and amount of publicly available scholarship. The Author's Addendum endorsed by the University of Minnesota Senate in 2007 protects journals and the peer review process: for journals that do not already allow open access to articles within six months of publication, faculty may request a delay of up to six months after publication before s/he or the university places any articles in a public repository. Immediate access continues to be through the published, subscribed journal.

In some disciplines, freely accessible online archives have proven to be a supplement to journal readership, not a replacement for it. In physics, for example, where nearly 100% of new articles are freely available from birth in the arXiv open-access repository, subscription-based journals have continued to thrive. The American Physical Society and the Institute of Physics Publishing are unable to identify any subscriptions lost as a result of arXiv in more than a decade of its existence (Alma Swan, Open access self-archiving: An Introduction. Technical Report, 2005 -- http://eprints.ecs.soton.ac.uk/11006/).

Adapted, in part, from BioMedCentral's (Mis)Leading Open Access Myths page: http://www.biomedcentral.com/openaccess/inquiry/myths/

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