Many scientists and publishers have questioned the quality of open-access (OA) journals. Initially their concerns may have been justified, as most of the original OA journals were created and operated by academics with little experience in publishing and often very limited resources. While some of these early experiments in open-access publishing resulted in excellent journals, many did not and often disappeared quickly. Unfortunately this attrition gave OA publishing a bad reputation.
Since the launching of the Public Library of Science (PLoS) and BioMed Central (BMC) about a decade ago as the first professional OA publishers, the reputation of OA publishing has begun to change. Our study, which was recently published in BMC Medicine, confirms what many have suspected for quite some time—that the better OA journals are on par with their subscription counterparts.
We compared approximately 600 OA journals with 7,500 subscription journals using Web of Science citation data. (Full disclosure: Web of Science was founded by Eugene Garfield, who also founded The Scientist.) While subscription journals had higher citation rates overall, as can be seen in the figure, after controlling for factors such as the age of the journal, the differences tended to disappear over the last decade, a fact that reflects the emergence of high quality professional OA publishers funded by Article Processing Fees (APCs) in medicine and health. The OA journals founded before 1996 are in fact subscription journals that have made electronic versions freely available. Many of these are published by scientific societies in regions like Latin America, which tends to lower overall citation figures.
Mean Two-Year Impact Factor by Funding and Era Launched
OA journals funded by APCs do have a dark side. The incentives associated with charging publication fees coupled with the ease with which unscrupulous and/or incompetent publishers can set up publishing web sites has resulted in a growing number of very low quality journals funded by APCs. Jeffery Beall, a librarian at the University of Colorado, has attempted to highlight this problem by creating a list of what he terms “predatory” open access publishers.
While poor quality publishers are proliferating, often creating hundreds of cookie-cutter journals, they tend to publish relatively few articles. On the other hand, PLoS recently published its 50,000th article. We reanalyzed data from a study we recently published in the Journal of the American Society for Information Science and Technology that characterized the APCs of journals charging them. We found that two thirds of the approximately 106,000 articles published in 2010 in these journals, listed in the Directory of Open Access Journals, were in publications listed by the 2010 Journal Citation Report (JCR) and another 11 percent were listed in the Scopus abstract and citation database but not in the JCR. The publishers of these indexes screen the journals they list for quality including ensuring that they are properly peer-reviewed. This suggests that the majority of scientists publishing in OA journals that charge APCs are savvy enough to avoid low quality publishers. It appears that they care about the quality of the journals in which they publish, as do the promotion and tenure committees that evaluate researchers. Beall and others have pointed out a legitimate concern with predatory publishing, but it is important to keep that concern in perspective.
There are a variety of open access models. Currently there are more OA journals that do not charge APCs than do, according to the Directory of Open-Access Journals, and archived versions of articles published in subscription journals still constitute the bulk of OA articles. Still, APC-funded professional publishing is a growing part of open-access publishing, and our research suggests that this is the most direct path for developing high-quality professional open-access scholarly publishing based on a sustainable funding model.
David Solomon is a professor in the Department of Medicine and the Office of Medical Education Research and Development at Michigan State University. He is the founding editor of Medical Education Online an OA journal currently published by Co-Action Publishing and was a founding board member of the Open Access Publishers Association. Bo-Christer Björk is Professor of Information Systems Science at the Hanken School of Economics, Helsinki, Finland. He is the founding editor of the OA Journal of Information Technology in Construction and currently a board member at the Open Access Scholarly Publishers Association.
(Editor's Note: For more on the past, present, and future of science publishing, check out a debate among leading voices in the current issue of The Scientist.)