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Open access—is it the way forward?

Lately there has been a clamour for making our journal ‘Open Access’ (OA). It is therefore topical to debate and dissect the nitty-gritties of OA publication. The global campaign ‘Access to Knowledge’ (A2K) championed the noble intent that all knowledge must enter public realm. OA publication emerged as one of the prospective avenues. Though the OA movement gained steam only after Internet established a firm foothold in this millennium, the seeds were sown much earlier. Infact, one of the earliest proponents for universalising knowledge was Mahatma Gandhi, who famously renounced the copyrights of the contents of the English Edition of his book ‘Hind Swaraj’, by issuing a blurb ‘No Rights Reserved’ in 1910!

OA publication has been defined as, ‘Digital, online information, free of charge and free of most copyright and licensing restrictions, readily available to the researchers and general public, once published’ [1]. For the purists, these are essentially of two types—‘Gold Open Access’, in which published material is freely available from the journal website itself and ‘Green Open Access’, where authors are permitted to self-archive the articles into their personal or institutional repositories and websites. However, there exists a hybrid model, labelled ‘Bronze Open Access’, which is free to read on the publisher’s page, but sans any Creative Commons license, and material cannot be reused.

Unquestionably, the OA model helps in rapid and wide dissemination of knowledge. The former, viz speed of publication, has special import to the fiercely competitive contemporary times, where delay in release of cutting-edge science may not only undermine its importance and relevance, but even translate into economic losses. The latter, i.e. wide dissemination, assumes pertinence to scholars from developing countries and less well-endowed universities. However, the key stumbling block is the missing certitude of quality and authenticity of the knowledge being shared. Thus, though the OA model may meet the Mertonian norms of ‘Communism’, ‘Universalism’ and ‘Disinterestedness’, but it falls miserably short of the 4th, and infact the most compelling, touchstone of authentic science, viz ‘Organized scepticism’.

Notwithstanding the fact that the OA model was well intentioned, it has lately lost credibility, because of a meteoric rise of ill-credentialed publishers, often with mal-intent of amassing money, taking to the OA model of publishing. They either fake or go through a very cursory peer review, and the rigour of a diligent editorial over-sight is conspicuous by its absence. Moreover, there is no transparency even in the constitution of the editorial board, which is quite often populated with individuals with doubtful, and even dubious, credentials. Most of these, to use a rather pejorative term—‘Predatory journals’, solicit articles and authors fall prey to these constant solicitations, even at the cost of paying exorbitant fees, in their quest to be able to meet the requirements, and beat deadlines, for promotions or to justify their application for grants and fellowships. Both, the processing times and the rejection rates in these journals are extremely low, as business economics supersede the quality metrics of the journal. Larger the number of articles accepted, greater is the profit margin, and therefore it requires no great shakes of intelligence to realise that there are very few, if at all any, rejections from these ‘Predatory OA journals’. A lot of editors too want to go OA to improve upon the impact factor (IF) of their journal, which is dependent on the citations that the articles get. OA articles tend to get more citations, not always because of the quality, but more often due to the increased visibility, as compared to those articles which are published in scholarly subscription journals, but are hidden behind a pay wall.

I certainly do not want to decry the OA model of publishing, if the underlying intent is worthy and totally scientific. As warranted by Dom Mitchell, Operations Manager of Directory of Open Access Journals (DOAJ), in an online post on 2 Oct, 2020, almost 63% of 15,259 journals indexed in DOAJ do not levy any article processing charge (APC). However, if economic expediency takes charge, which unfortunately seem to have done lately, with the sudden pandemic of ‘Predatory journals’, this model seems to be doing more harm than good to the scientific community, and even to the society at large. Here, the role of so-called well-meaning publishers of scholarly journals too comes under scrutiny. The academic publishing arena is an oligopolistic market driven by 3–4 major players and earning ‘super profits’ in the range of 25 to 35% (Fig. 1) [2]. If this was not enough, another transformative move that publishers have slipped in, rather surreptitiously, is a shift from a model of ‘Purchase’ to ‘Licensing’. In the latter format, even archives are covered under the licence and hence have to be paid for in perpetuity by users. They have used this model as much to fill up their coffers, as to serve ‘Science’ and the ‘Scientific community’. No wonder then, Elsevier, world’s numero-uno in scientific journals, has virtually turned completely OA and even Springers has launched ‘Transformative’ journals and are turning OA, through the hybrid approach for the intermediate stage. More such innovative models are evolving and scientific publication remains a moving target. In 2018, Europe launched its new initiative in innovative publishing, cryptically labelled ‘Plan S’. Of the 10 defining principles, the key ones are that the authors retain unencumbered copyrights, publication fee is standardised and most importantly, authors do not pay this publishing fee, but instead the institution or the funder bear this cost [3].

Fig. 1
figure 1

Operating profits (million USD) and profit margin of Reed-Elsevier as a whole (A) and of its Scientific, Technical & Medical division (B), 1991–2013 [2]

No matter, what new models of publishing evolve, we need a greater transparency and regulation of publication of OA journals. ‘Eternal vigilance is the price of liberty’, says an age-old adage. Therefore, even authors should be eternally vigilant of the scope for dubious practices and must check the credibility of the journal before submitting their hard-earned and valuable scientific accomplishments. Though there is a DOAJ, most of us ignore to check the veracity of the journals before submitting our research manuscripts. It would thus behove us to be mindful of unethical practices around and guard against falling in the trap of getting published through money power, of affording prohibitively hefty publishing fees. It not only gets a bad press, but more importantly evokes and propagates a negative feeling of guilt and loss of self-esteem—indeed a heavy price, worth not affording for an ill-gotten publication!

To answer the conundrum we started with, Open access—is it the way forward, the jury is out. What say you?

References

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Yadava, O.P. Open access—is it the way forward?. Indian J Thorac Cardiovasc Surg 37, 621–622 (2021). https://doi.org/10.1007/s12055-021-01282-2

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