Open Access: is academic publishing compatible with the Web?

The Web is a brilliant information resource, but only if producers share their context online. A noteworthy example is academic publishing. Scientists rely on being able to access other’s work, to provide a foundation for their work. However, this is done through publishing companies, who own the rights to the works in return for distributing it. Therefore, universities and others have to pay to access the papers required for their research. These paywalls create a system of ‘Harvards’ and ‘have-nots’ (see diagram and Hoffmann 2008).

Harvards have nots
The difference between ‘Harvards’ and ‘Have nots’ (own create with sources inline). Click to enlarge.

Removing these barriers are the aims of the ‘Open Access’ (OA) movement, as they are incompatible with the open nature of the Web. Furthermore, scientific work is a public good – as you consume a paper, others also benefit (as you are likely to use that knowledge in creating more).

A YouTube video that nicely explains the complex arguments around OA (Jorge Cham et al. 2012)

They advocate two phases of OA. Firstly, so-called ‘green’ self-archiving of papers in an open repository at the author’s institution (for example Eprints, developed at Southampton). Such archiving grants access free to the paper, as a supplement to a journal article. Such archiving increases citations (see graph), indicating an increased research impact. This could be because articles are available more quickly (Hanard 2003).

citation impact
A graph showing the increase in citations for papers using ‘green’ open access, across various academic disciplines. (Harnad 2008). Click to enlarge.

Also, they want to transform the publishing industry’s business model to a ‘gold’ one (see Newcastle University n.d.). This is where readers no longer pay to read, but authors pay to publish (out of their research grants). Hanard (2003) says that OA fully exploits Web technologies, as papers can be ‘citation-interlinked’; creating a ‘fully searchable, navigable, retrievable’ academia-wide repository.

However, OA is not perfect, and it raises problems. Firstly, publishers, who own the rights, aren’t the content creators. Therefore, what is best for the author (whether or not that is OA) often doesn’t align with publisher’s interests. Academic publishing is very lucrative (see The Economist 2012), and therefore, publishers are likely to resist change. OA relies on publisher’s “usage policies”, which define how papers can be used (SHERPA RoMEO tracks these at

President Bush mandated that research funded by US National Institutes of Health should be available via OA. However, this achieved a mere 4% compliance level (Suber 2008). This shows that the road to complete OA is long and winding. However, it seems inevitable that eventually publisher’s business models will change due to the Web (sites exist that share academic papers illegally). Should profit-seeking publishers be the ultimate curators of research knowledge?

An infographic explaining the different approaches to Open Access (own creation, with sources inline). Click to enlarge.

Word count: 400


Jorge Cham et al. 2012 “Open Access Explained!”

Harnad 2008, “Validating research performance metrics against peer rankings”

Harnad 2003, “For Whom the Gate Tolls?”

Hoffmann 2008, “Editorial: ‘Harvards’ and ‘Have-Nots’ on a Level Playing Field: Open Access as a Publication Model for Contemporary Area Studies”

Newcastle University n.d. “Green and Gold Open Access”

Suber 2008 “An Open Access Mandate for the NIH”

The Economist 2012 “Scientific publishing: The price of information” (apologies, ironic paywall)


7 thoughts on “Open Access: is academic publishing compatible with the Web?

  1. Hey Mark,

    It’s great that you have observed the positives and negative effects of Open Access within academia in your blog post. My question is what methods can be implemented to prevent the quality of research papers being compromised from OA. For instance, a Science Journalist form Harvard University discovered there is a significant proportion of open access journals compromising their quality by publishing fake research papers (source:

    Moreover, do you think there are other industries which open access extends to? For example, the entertainment industry where the motivations for an artist to make their work freely available is not as great. Furthermore unlike academic papers, previous attempts for making music freely available have met with resistance such as in the case with U2 making publishing their album for free on Apple (Source:


    Liked by 1 person

    1. Hi Ji,

      Thanks for your comment and kind words, I’m glad you’ve found my post useful!

      With regards to fake academic publishing, that is indeed a growing issue. The transformation of publishing to ‘gold’ Open Access is very much vulnerable to the kind of abuse you rightly point out. However, it should be noted ‘green’ OA is not vulnerable in the same way, as the normal peer review process is undertaken. As I see it, this does not have to be an inevitable response to gold OA. Firstly, there is no reason why a journal paid for by submissions, rather than subscription fees, needs to accept a worse quality of paper. For this to happen the reviewers must still be independent to ensure that the quality of academic publishing is maintained, impartial to the profit incentive, where it pays to publish more papers. Secondly, these journals do not have to be pay to publish, they could use alternative revenue streams such as advertising. Finally, why does peer review and publishing have to be combined? Could an independent reviewing service, run not for profit, review and approve papers (with an accreditation of some kind) and then this is distributed by a publisher separately? As Cham et al say in their video above, we’ve got to be open minded and creative with the business models for academic publishing in the future.

      My post purely focuses on academic publishing, as I feel like it is one of the most important areas at the moment. Ensuring open, transparent and accountable science is more important that ever. Music, I argue, is a different issue as it is a profit seeking product, at the end of the day. Furthermore, services such as Spotify and YouTube have allowed wider access to music for a flat fee. However, one thing to note is the parrellels between music priacy and academic publishing is how there are sites dedicated to both today. Is publishing an academic paper for free on the Web any different, morally and ethically, to sharing music?

      Thanks again for the comment, I hope my response has enlightened your points. I’d love to hear any further ideas you may have?



  2. Hi Mark,
    You make some interesting points about possible changes to the funding of academic publishing as online access increases but the new models raise further questions.
    1). Do you think that the OA ‘gold’ system, whereby researchers have to pay to publish their work, also creates ‘havenots’ i.e. poorly-funded groups who do not have the resources to pay for publication in the most prestigious (and expensive) journals? There could be ethical issues and conflicts of interest if journals relied on advertising e.g. pharmaceutical companies supporting medical journals.
    2).For many years most institutional libraries have retained paper copies of articles written by their own staff, which are available to researchers visiting in person and The British Library will provide a photocopy of any published paper for a small charge for ‘private study’. How does the’ Green’ system extend this?

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Hi Baby Boomer,

      Many thanks for your comment and kind words, this is certainly a stimulating topic and it is great to hear your ideas!

      With regards to your first question, it is very true that Open Access will raise new issues. As you mention, this is particularly true if researchers are paying to publish their work, which creates new ‘havenots’. My thoughts are that publishing work is a less common activity than reading other work. In the course of researching a new area, one might have to read hundreds of papers, from a wide range of different journals and publishers. But at the end of this research, they may only publish one or a few papers (depending on the field etc.). Therefore, I argue that paying to read, which is the basis of the current model, is more likely to have increased numbers of ‘havenots’. But as you say, this is not clear cut and more research would be needed. Should, for instance, publishing be paid for by governments so that the whole system is free for scientists?

      You mention how advertising could lead to conflicts of interests. I fully agree with this statement. advertising, in my eyes, doesn’t seem like a particularly suitable solution here. Conflicts of interest, unfortunately, are part of many things (including other aspects of research, such as research funding) and can be managed. But as your example shows, this is something that should be avoided. The point that is most critical to my post, however, is that there are other possible business models and that we should think outside of the box.

      Your second point about institution archiving (both locally and nationally at the British Library) is spot on. The ‘green’ (and perhaps more achievable level) of Open Access certainly feels like an extension of this practice. However, as you mention this requires visiting in person, which the Web removes. Therefore, it is far more open as one does not have to travel (which in itself could be very expensive), especially overseas. Also, I do not know what the system is outside the UK, but ‘green’ is worldwide. This means that significantly more people can access this research, particularly those who are merely ‘interested’ who would never travel to read these paper. I would hope this would inspire more people to get involved in the scientific process. Also, in an era of ‘fake news’ and ‘alternative facts’, this provides much more transparency (see the UEA climate scandal a few years ago

      I hope I’ve answered some of your excellent points. I’d love to hear any further thoughts you may have!



  3. Hey Mark,

    I also agree with the comment above with regards to ‘gold’ standard OA potentially creating a gap in research funding. What will be the motivation of independent researchers to get their journals published if there is no financial incentive for them?

    Moreover you mentioned advertisers potentially funding OA journals but surely that opens up more ethical issues. For instance a pharmaceutical company could fund a medical journal and push their own agenda onto them, how can publishers avoid this? Furthermore, what will be the motivation for a free peer review service? How will it benefit them directly?

    Finally I disagree with your comment about music being a purely profit seeking industry, there have been instances of artists making their music open access but have resulted in backlash from consumers (source: There are artists who publish there music for free such as on the popular music streaming service soundcloud just as there are piracy sites which can be used to download academic journals illegally (source: Therefore parallels can be drawn from the academic and entertainment industry n respect to this.


    Liked by 1 person

    1. Hi Ji,

      Thanks for your reply, a great discussion as always.

      I’ve responded to some of your points to Baby Bomber above, so you’ll want to read that. However, here are some thoughts.

      Firstly, I don’t think researchers are motivated financially. Generally, they are motivated by citations and impacts, something that OA has been shown to improve (see my post). But there is really a challenge around funding for them to publish their work, especially independent people as you mention.

      I feel that the motivation for peer review is that it shows their work is of good quality, encouraging others to read and use their work, increasing its impact. Therefore, I imagine a system where peer review is separate to the publisher. This means that it doesn’t really matter where the paper is published (perhaps your own website), but that the third party certifies it. Such a model is an example of expanding our concept of that is possible with academic publishing.

      Of course, music doesn’t have to profit seeking. However, the example you cite of U2 is not necessarily because they weren’t seeking revenue. Lots of the music industry is based on concerts and other product and services, not record sales alone. Therefore, I’d argue that they did that in order to increase their exposure, as a loss leader to other revenue. Such exposure is very much seen in Sound Cloud as you mention, where fans are created in order to generate revenue from them later (through merchandise or concerts, for example). The problem with that case was not so much that it was free, but that consumers didn’t ask for it. If you take away that choice, then people are likely to be upset. There is a difference between offering something for free (Open Access), and shoving it down their throats, which is what I feel happened in that case.

      I hope that helps, I’d love to hear any further questions you have!



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