In this post, I'll talk about some of the benefits and drawbacks of open access publishing from the perspective of a paleontologist. I'll also discuss how to choose an open access journal.
Kinds of Open Access
Open access comes in many different flavors. From least to most restrictive, they are:
- Open Access Immediately. Your paper is available, for free to the reader, from the instant of publication. Palaeontologia Electronica and PLoS One are widely known examples.
- Open Access After Awhile. The paper is available to paid subscribers for a set length of time (perhaps six months or a year), and then becomes freely available. Journal of Experimental Biology, as one example, uses this method.
- Hybrid Access. The article is in a normally closed-access journal, but the author pays a fee to allow open access for all readers. Journal of Systematic Palaeontology allows this option.
- Author's Choice Access. The author pays a fee to a closed-access journal for the privilege of posting a PDF of the said article on a personal website. Journal of Vertebrate Paleontology is a well-known example of this mode.
- Author's Email Access. The author pays to get a PDF file that they can then distribute (legally) via email only. JVP also allows this mode.
Benefits of Open Access
The most striking benefit of open access is availability--the article is free to download for anyone who has an internet connection. The paper is picked up by Google and other search engines pretty much automatically, and people who are looking for that sort of research will usually find it.
From the author's standpoint, open access publishing is also usually faster than the standard model. Everything is done electronically, including the final publication. There is no lag time to mail the journals out, and some open access journals have a "rolling" publication schedule (meaning that once your article is approved, it's out there). Because many of the journals aren't bound by page constraints, they can place as many articles in a single issue as are available. There's no waiting 14 months for space to be available in the journal (a frighteningly common problem in many journals - if you've published papers, you've probably experienced this at least once).
Finally, the electronic-only mode of many open access journals allows some creativity in presentation. Need to have a movie as Figure 1 in your paper (rather than just a supplement)? Go right ahead (in some cases)!
The Costs of Open Access
Like many "regular" publications, some (but not all) open access journals have page charges. Depending on the journal, these can run up to $3,000 for a single article. A partial list of typical fee schedules is available here (thanks to Dr. Randy Irmis for passing along this link).
What is a poor paleontologist to do? In some cases, universities (that is, if you're based at a university) will partially subsidize the cost. In other cases, the journals (such as PLoS One) may partially or completely waive the open access fee for those with financial need. Finally, you can always find an open access journal with no fees (and they are numerous!). The most ethical of open access journals will not consider ability to pay in making decisions on publication.
A more critical concern, from the standpoint of relatively unestablished authors, is that some in the scientific community don't consider open access journals "real" or as good as their closed access counterparts. Yes, there are some open access journals out there with questionable editorial practices (they are in the minority, fortunately) --but there are also printed journals with loose standards (and these are also in the minority). And, there are many quite excellent open access journals, which are widely cited and recognized as such! So, the "quality" argument doesn't hold a lot of water in my view. Unfortunately, this reality doesn't necessarily hold up to the perception of the search, award, or tenure committee (rightly or wrongly).
Hope for the Future
How does a researcher support open access and circumvent this last concern? As a compromise, I might recommend using open access journals as one part of a publishing portfolio. After all, there are some really good closed-access publications out there (e.g., Journal of Vertebrate Paleontology, etc.) that do well at getting research into the hands (and minds) of the right audience. Some open access journals (Acta Palaeontologica Polonica, PLoS One, etc.) also do a good job at this. Choose the right journal for your paper--and an open access journal if that will get the research to the right people. Out of all the papers I have published, the one that gets cited the most was in Palaeontologia Electronica. I submitted it there on a whim, and have been pleasantly surprised by just how widely read it has been. Finally, just write good papers! A good paper is recognized as one no matter what, regardless of the journal.
Time will be the most important factor in changing attitudes. As open access publishing becomes more common, it will be seen as less freaky by the powers-that-be. And, this is a very, very good thing.