Why isn’t anyone publishing open-access articles in Elsevier journals?
February 11, 2012
A couple of days ago, we noted that PLoS ONE publishes more open-access articles in a month than all of Elsevier’s 2637 journals put together publish in a year. This time I would like to consider why that is.
I am genuinely interested here, and I’d like to hear from people who have considered publishing their own work as open access in an Elsevier journal. But pending the arrival of information based on experience, I can take four guesses.
First, there is an ideological reason. Authors who care about open access probably don’t just want their article to be open; they want it to be in an open journal. That makes sense to me, or at least it resonates with me emotionally. Although it has important economic implications, open access is at bottom an ethical issue for a lot of people. If you care about an issue you want to be with other people who Get It in the same way — it’s one reason that groups form and hold conferences. And if an article is in (say) a PLoS journal, everyone knows it’s open. There’s no doubt.
Second, there is a legal reason. Articles published by PLoS are fully open access, using the Creative Commons Attribution License (CC-BY). This means that data from PLoS articles can be freely mined, interpreted and republished provided only that the author is acknowledged, which means that PLoS article meet the original definition of the term “open access” as stated by the Budapest Open Access Initiative:
“By ‘open access’ to this literature, we mean its free availability on the public internet, permitting any users to read, download, copy, distribute, print, search, or link to the full texts of these articles, crawl them for indexing, pass them as data to software, or use them for any other lawful purpose, without financial, legal, or technical barriers other than those inseparable from gaining access to the internet itself. The only constraint on reproduction and distribution, and the only role for copyright in this domain, should be to give authors control over the integrity of their work and the right to be properly acknowledged and cited.”
By contrast, the “open access” offerings of many publishers do not meet this definition and should not really be described as “open access” at all. For example, it turns out to be pretty much impossible to discover exactly what the terms of Elsevier’s “open access” option are: it’s not spelled out on their Sponsored Articles page, which talks only about “the option to sponsor non-subscriber access to individual articles”, nor on the article sponsorship form. (I discussed this in more detail previously, and still await any useful information.)
Third, there are technological reasons to prefer PLoS. They impose no limits on manuscript length, figure count, image size, etc. Their high resolution figures are a pleasure to behold (though to be fair the UI is pretty poor). Videos and suchlike are just fine. Articles are made available not only as PDF and HTML, but also as semantically marked-up XML that is very amenable to automatic processing. Article-level metrics let you see how you’re doing. Comments on the article let you carry out relevant discussions right where the paper is rather than off on a blog somewhere. In short, PLoS was designed from the ground up to live in an electronic world rather than being a printed journal transferred onto the net. There may not be causation, but there certainly seems to be correlation between open-access journals and those which take advantage of the electronic world.
And finally, there is an economic argument, too. If it costs $3000 to publish as “open access” (whatever that may mean) in an Elsevier journal, you could save more than half that money by going to PLoS ONE instead. And if you care more about prestige, then PLoS Biology is still a hair cheaper than Elsevier, and its impact factor of 12.916 (for 2009) is better than the great majority of Elsevier’s journals. So it just feels like a better journal to aim for.
In the end, the moral seems to be that publishers that actively grasp the open access nettle — that welcome it with open arms — are better placed to benefit from the revolution than traditional publishers who are trying to make the transition.
Any other thoughts?