Thursday, September 14, 2017

The Dark Side of Open Access Publishing

Normally, I am a staunch advocate for open-access (OA) publishing. See previous blog posts on OA here, here, here, here, and here. But with a recent article in the Chronicle of Higher Education (sub. req'd.), it became clear that advocating for OA publishing without mentioning the possible pitfalls is irresponsible.

The CHE article follows the recent demise of Beall's List -- the list created by a librarian to warn researchers about predatory publishers. CHE provides the following possible causes for the demise:

  • [Beall's] fellow university librarians, whom Mr. Beall faults for overpromoting open-access publishing models.
  • A well-financed Swiss publisher, angry that Mr. Beall had had the temerity to put its journals on his list.
  • His own university, perhaps fatigued by complaints from the publisher, the librarians, or others.
  • The broader academic community — universities, funders of research, publishers, and fellow researchers, many of whom long understood the value of Mr. Beall’s list but did little to help him out.
  • Mr. Beall himself, who failed to recognize that a bit of online shaming wouldn’t stop many scientists from making common cause with journals that just don’t ask too many questions.

As to the first point, in Mr. Beall’s analysis, journal-subscription costs had been driven up by a variety of economic, academic, and demographic shifts, compounded by the failure of academic librarians to properly manage those shifts. Rather than admit that, Mr. Beall concluded, librarians had joined in unfair denunciations of large subscription-model publishers, such as Elsevier, for reaping unduly large profits. Those librarians essentially adopted a political perspective, Mr. Beall argued, that led them to overlook a chief characteristic of open-access journals — a model in which authors, not subscribers, pay the cost of publishing. That model, according to Mr. Beall, creates dangerous incentives for corner-cutting and abuse.

I take issue with the notion that advocating for OA also somehow means advocating for predatory publishing models. Many librarians advocate for open access because the underlying research is largely funded by public monies, and the resulting articles should be more accessible to the public.

Although I do, now, recognize that the pitfalls of OA publishing should always be mentioned when advocating for OA, along with a link to any "white lists" -- lists that provide approved OA publishers and are presumably less problematic than black lists.

In the scientific world, leading examples of white lists include PubMed's MEDLINE, the journal archive operated by the National Institutes of Health, and the membership lists of the Open Access Scholarly Publishers Association and the Directory of Open Access Journals, all of which use quality criteria to limit eligible journals.

Ultimately, Beall was providing a valuable service, largely on his own time. And he was brave for doing so given the associated risks. Many will be sad to see this contribution fall by the wayside.

Thankfully, in law, we have moved toward a model of broad OA, with many reputable journals (that largely do not adhere to the author-funded model) now making their content widely accessible. For a list of OA law journals, see the American Bar Association's Free Full-Text Online Law Review/Journal Search.


  1. On whitelists see:

  2. A great point! And an additional notice to researchers looking to publish that even if a journal appears in PubMed (for example), the researcher should still be discerning about the quality of the journal.

  3. As a medical librarian, it has become more and more difficult to explain to PubMed searchers that journal quality control is applied only to the database MEDLINE, one component of the larger NLM search interface known as PubMed. Another smaller component is PubMed Central, the full-text repository for publications resulting from NIH-funded research. These manuscripts are required to be deposited into PubMed Central in accordance with the NIH Public Access Policy. It is mostly these publications that are found to be in suspected "predatory" journals.NIH-funded researchers are not required to publish in any particular set of journals, although some funders are now asking for open access journals. In any case, if the PubMed interface is to be used as a "whitelist," use the MEDLINE filter to limit to formally approved journals. Authors, institutions, and funders may need to change journal selection training and practices. It's not so easy anymore.

  4. Wonderful information! Thanks so much for the addendum regarding MEDLINE.