Quandary: Scientists Prefer Reading Over Publishing 'Open Access' Papers

BERLIN—Scientists love open-access papers as readers, but as authors they are still skeptical, according to a new study of available journals and researchers’ attitudes on the topic. The E.U.-sponsored Study of Open Access Publishing (dubbed the SOAP project) surveyed 50,000 researchers for their opinions on open-access journals, which make all their papers freely available online and usually charge authors a fee for each published paper. (Here’s an example called Biogeosciences.)

The study found overwhelming support for the concept, with 89% of respondents saying that open access is beneficial to their field. But that support didn’t always translate into action: Although 53% of respondents said they had published at least one open-access article, overall only about 10% of papers are published in open-access journals. “We cannot ignore this gap anymore,” says Salvatore Mele, project leader for open access at CERN near Geneva, Switzerland, and a member of the study team.

The study, which released its full results yesterday at a symposium here, found two main reasons researchers don’t submit their work to open-access journals.

Almost 40% said that a lack of funding for
author fees was a deterrent. And 30% cited a lack of high-quality open-access journals in their field. Clearly, “journal quality and impact factor is most important—not [open access]—when deciding where to submit” for the majority of scientists, says Peter Strickland of the International Union of Crystallography, which publishes the fully open-access Structure Reports Online as well as seven subscription-based journals.

Requiring authors to make sure the results of their work are freely available has had only partial success. Robert Kiley, head of digital services at the Wellcome Trust’s Wellcome Library in London, said at the symposium that open-access rates had risen from 12% to 50% since the funder began requiring its grantees to publish in open-access journals or deposit their papers in a freely available repository. Kiley acknowledged, however, that Wellcome had not imposed sanctions on researchers who failed to comply. “We are trying to persuade people rather than punish them,” he said.

The study also makes it clear that open-access journals are proliferating, especially among small publishers. The study found that one-third of open-access papers were published by the more than 1600 open-access publishers that publish only a single journal. Several hundred new open-access journals are being launched each year, noted Caroline Sutton of the Open Access Scholarly Publishers Association in The Hague. “It’s really difficult to launch a new subscription-based journal, but the open-access fee model is scalable,” she says. “As you receive more submissions and publish more papers, you get more fees.”

The study also identified 14 “large publishers” that publish either more than 50 journals or more than 1000 articles per year. The group accounts for roughly one-third of open-access publications, the study found. Other large publishers are catching on. Half a dozen large scientific publishers have announced new open-access journals in the past 6 months, notes Mark Patterson, director of publishing at the Public Library of Science (PLoS). All are modeled on PLoS ONE, the publisher’s biggest journal (and main revenue generator). The journal publishes papers after an accelerated peer review in which experts check for scientific rigor but not overall importance. Nature Publishing Group is the latest to jump on board: It announced last week that it was accepting submissions for a new rapid-review, all open-access journal, Scientific Reports, due to begin publishing in June.

Preliminary results from the study are, of course, freely available online. Mele says the entire data set and the team’s analysis, as well as videos of the symposium, will be available next week via the SOAP project Web site.