ArtsAutosBooksBusinessEducationEntertainmentFamilyFashionFoodGamesGenderHealthHolidaysHomeHubPagesPersonal FinancePetsPoliticsReligionSportsTechnologyTravel

Open Access Journals: A New Scientific Revolution?

Updated on June 19, 2013
For decades, scientific knowledge remained locked in the ivory tower of academic publishing
For decades, scientific knowledge remained locked in the ivory tower of academic publishing | Source

Every few decades, an idea comes along in science that revolutionizes an entire branch of study. Germ theory, evolution, relativity, quantum physics - these ideas overturned conventional thinking of their time and changed the course of scientific history. Author Thomas Kuhn dubbed these ideas and their effects on scientific thinking paradigm shifts. Though the term has since been co-opted by self-help gurus and management consultants, the paradigm shift is a very real part of the history of science as new theories replace old ideas.

The next revolution in science may not be a new theory at all, but a revolution in the way scientific journals are published and funded.

Journal Access: The Pre-Revolutionary Model

The first scientific journals were published in 1665, and their model for access has remained pretty much the same since the 17th century. An annual subscription fee gave the institutional subscriber a paper copy of the journal which could then be stored in a library for retrieval by patrons. Until the end of the 20th century, this model made perfect sense.

With the dawn of electronic publishing, journal publishers attempted to retain the traditional system as much as possible. Institutional subscribers would pay an annual fee to allow their patrons access to electronic copies of the journals. Individuals not affiliated with a subscriber institution would have to pay a per-article fee in order to view an academic paper.

There are some problems with this model, the least of which being its cultural clash with the free-to-all, advertiser-supported tradition of the Internet. By locking research studies away in the proverbial "ivory tower" of academic libraries, access to scientific information is denied to the vast majority of the public. Public library systems and smaller universities may not be able to afford the high annual subscription costs of the hundreds of journals available from major publishers.

In many cases, the research itself is publicly-funded, either directly through government research grants, or indirectly through use of facilities at state-run universities. Under the traditional subscription model, the taxpayer ends up paying three times for a single piece of research - first via the research grant, then to pay the salaries of peer reviewers who work for public universities and institutions, and finally through public libraries who pay the subscription fee for the journal.

The situation is also unfavorable for the scientists who write the journal articles. The value of a scientific study is ultimately in its impact - how much influence it has had on the field of study. This is measured by the number of citations the study has received in subsequent studies of the same topic. Limiting access to a journal article makes it less likely to be cited, and thus reduces its impact. Some journal publishers even prohibit authors from self-publishing their own work on their personal or university web sites, retaining the intellectual property rights to the author's hard work.


Open Access: The Paradigm Shift

In 1991, physicist Paul Ginsparg, working at Los Alamos National Laboratory, created an online archive on the web site to house pre-print versions of physics papers that were awaiting publication in scientific journals. This site, named arXiv, was one of the earliest experiments in Open Access, and has proven to be among the most successful. Thousands of journal articles are published to arXiv every year, all accessible to anyone with an Internet connection.

There are two basic models of Open Access publishing: Green and Gold. ArXiv is an example of Green Open Access - the archiving of published journal articles or pre-print manuscripts in a freely-accessible location. Another example would be self-archiving of papers to a university document repository or faculty member's personal page. Though some subscriber-based academic journals have adopted a Green Open Access policy for their authors, many have not and strictly retain the copyright to the author's work.

Gold Open Access is less common, but far more accessible. Journals such as the Public Library of Science or some publications of the National Academy of Sciences provide all published articles free of charge to the public.

There are a few other variations on these models. Hybrid Open Access journals, for example, allow authors to pay to make their article freely available. Delayed Open Access is another model some journals have adopted, keeping articles behind a pay wall for an embargo period of anywhere from a month to well over a year. After this embargo period, articles are made open access on the publisher's site or via the author.

The Death of the Subscription Journal

The emergence of the Open Access movement of the early 1990s led some in academia to proclaim the impending demise of the traditional scientific journal. Two decades later, it is clear that those rumors were a bit premature. The traditional subscription-model journal is still going strong.

Even though Open Access enjoys widespread support amongst researchers, scientists, funding agencies, librarians, and public advocacy organizations, the new paradigm of publishing still has its critics - primarily those in the traditional journal publishing industry. The long-term economic sustainability of an Open Access publishing model is an often-cited concern. Another concern is that the pay-for-publishing system of some Open Access journals unfairly favors researchers from well-funded institutions.

The automatic publishing function of sites such as arXiv has also prompted some critics to raise concerns about the loss of the peer-review gatekeeper function of journals. This is a valid concern - studies have turned up on arXiv occasionally claiming to debunk the Theory of Relativity, or linking earthquakes with the 2011 passage of comet C/2010 X1 Elenin. However, this criticism falls a bit flat given examples of peer review failure that have allowed the publication of studies in major journals with extremely flawed methodology.

Two decades after the beginning of the movement, Open Access scientific literature is still the exception, not the rule in science publishing. The success of sites such as arXiv and PLoS provide cause for optimism, however. As Open Access journals grow in prestige, they may one day compete with the top scientific journals. For the foreseeable future, however, the subscription model will still be around.


    0 of 8192 characters used
    Post Comment
    • Teresa Coppens profile image

      Teresa Coppens 

      7 years ago from Ontario, Canada

      Well written and interesting. Here in Canada with funding shortfalls and ever rising tuition rates Open Access might provide some relief to especially smaller institutions. As on-line education increases in popularity Open Access will become increasingly important for the starving distance students to compete.

    • LetitiaFT profile image


      7 years ago from Paris via California

      Excellent article. I think open access might help specialists have access to research results in other fields. There is a need to bridge fields and this may help fill the gap. I do feel concern about the loss of peer review, despite it's shortfallings even within traditional publications. But wouldn't it be fabulous if sources were peer reviewed AND open?


    This website uses cookies

    As a user in the EEA, your approval is needed on a few things. To provide a better website experience, uses cookies (and other similar technologies) and may collect, process, and share personal data. Please choose which areas of our service you consent to our doing so.

    For more information on managing or withdrawing consents and how we handle data, visit our Privacy Policy at:

    Show Details
    HubPages Device IDThis is used to identify particular browsers or devices when the access the service, and is used for security reasons.
    LoginThis is necessary to sign in to the HubPages Service.
    Google RecaptchaThis is used to prevent bots and spam. (Privacy Policy)
    AkismetThis is used to detect comment spam. (Privacy Policy)
    HubPages Google AnalyticsThis is used to provide data on traffic to our website, all personally identifyable data is anonymized. (Privacy Policy)
    HubPages Traffic PixelThis is used to collect data on traffic to articles and other pages on our site. Unless you are signed in to a HubPages account, all personally identifiable information is anonymized.
    Amazon Web ServicesThis is a cloud services platform that we used to host our service. (Privacy Policy)
    CloudflareThis is a cloud CDN service that we use to efficiently deliver files required for our service to operate such as javascript, cascading style sheets, images, and videos. (Privacy Policy)
    Google Hosted LibrariesJavascript software libraries such as jQuery are loaded at endpoints on the or domains, for performance and efficiency reasons. (Privacy Policy)
    Google Custom SearchThis is feature allows you to search the site. (Privacy Policy)
    Google MapsSome articles have Google Maps embedded in them. (Privacy Policy)
    Google ChartsThis is used to display charts and graphs on articles and the author center. (Privacy Policy)
    Google AdSense Host APIThis service allows you to sign up for or associate a Google AdSense account with HubPages, so that you can earn money from ads on your articles. No data is shared unless you engage with this feature. (Privacy Policy)
    Google YouTubeSome articles have YouTube videos embedded in them. (Privacy Policy)
    VimeoSome articles have Vimeo videos embedded in them. (Privacy Policy)
    PaypalThis is used for a registered author who enrolls in the HubPages Earnings program and requests to be paid via PayPal. No data is shared with Paypal unless you engage with this feature. (Privacy Policy)
    Facebook LoginYou can use this to streamline signing up for, or signing in to your Hubpages account. No data is shared with Facebook unless you engage with this feature. (Privacy Policy)
    MavenThis supports the Maven widget and search functionality. (Privacy Policy)
    Google AdSenseThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    Google DoubleClickGoogle provides ad serving technology and runs an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    Index ExchangeThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    SovrnThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    Facebook AdsThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    Amazon Unified Ad MarketplaceThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    AppNexusThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    OpenxThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    Rubicon ProjectThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    TripleLiftThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    Say MediaWe partner with Say Media to deliver ad campaigns on our sites. (Privacy Policy)
    Remarketing PixelsWe may use remarketing pixels from advertising networks such as Google AdWords, Bing Ads, and Facebook in order to advertise the HubPages Service to people that have visited our sites.
    Conversion Tracking PixelsWe may use conversion tracking pixels from advertising networks such as Google AdWords, Bing Ads, and Facebook in order to identify when an advertisement has successfully resulted in the desired action, such as signing up for the HubPages Service or publishing an article on the HubPages Service.
    Author Google AnalyticsThis is used to provide traffic data and reports to the authors of articles on the HubPages Service. (Privacy Policy)
    ComscoreComScore is a media measurement and analytics company providing marketing data and analytics to enterprises, media and advertising agencies, and publishers. Non-consent will result in ComScore only processing obfuscated personal data. (Privacy Policy)
    Amazon Tracking PixelSome articles display amazon products as part of the Amazon Affiliate program, this pixel provides traffic statistics for those products (Privacy Policy)
    ClickscoThis is a data management platform studying reader behavior (Privacy Policy)