Monday, 21 October 2013

5 annoying things about Open Access

To start, I should say that all at Europe PMC support Open Access. This is just a short list of some issues that can be frustrating…

1.    The often incorrect definition of green and gold routes to Open Access
I am a relative newcomer to Open Access having only been working in this area for a couple of years. Before that I was a research scientist, and the movement had largely passed me by, with the exception of noticing that I didn’t have to click through the university journal subscription pages to download some articles.
Having said that, I have now lost count of the number of meetings I’ve been to about Open Access where the introduction has included an incorrect definition of the distinction between green and gold open access. ‘Green’ often gets described as free, whereas ‘gold’ you have to pay for. I’ve already said that I’m a newbie in this area, so I will refer you to Peter Suber’s Open Access for a definitive explanation.
In brief, green is self-archiving in a repository and gold is open access delivered by journals. There may be associated costs, but that is not the defining difference.

2.    The constant argument between Open Access advocates about which route, green or gold, is best.

It is an important discussion, but sometimes it can diminish the central message about the benefits of Open Access – some of which are being highlighted this week by the Accelerating Science Award Program (ASAP) which recognises individuals who have applied scientific research – published through Open Access – to innovate in any field and benefit society.

Crucially, Europe PMC enables both green and gold routes to Open Access. So, researchers (or their funders) can choose which route to use - most funders offer the flexibilty of both routes.

Of course, it’s more complicated than that, as the ‘choice’ is often affected by publishing options, for example. But, just for today, the simple take-home message is that you can go ‘green’ using the Manuscript Submission Service via Europe PMC plus, or ‘gold’ by publishing Open Access with a publisher who deposits their contents or individual Open Access articles with us (you can find out more on the journal list).

3.    That Open Access can be so much effort!
In theory it’s a matter of a few mouse clicks to make an article Open Access, but in reality a researcher needs to understand the impact that funder, institutional and publisher Open Access policies can have on each other.  And they already have enough to do carrying out their research.
We know that the current system is not perfect, and that the researcher is usually the one at the receiving end of sometimes conflicting advice in this area. We don’t have a solution just yet, but hopefully it’s worth sharing that the 24 Europe PMC funders are talking to each other, and to publishers and institutions to try and reach agreements that will make things easier on researchers in the future. These conversations can take time, but they are happening.

4.    This next one is not an irritation with Open Access, but with the mis-guided conflation of Open Access with poor or no peer review.

This reared its head again only a few weeks ago in a (non-peer-reviewed) article published by Science where the author had submitted a spoof paper to a sub-set of Open Access journals. His conclusion was that there is 'little or no [peer review] scrutiny' at many open access journals'. Others have already made a far better job than I could of addressing the flaws in the design and conclusions described in that article, for example, here and here. My impression from comments on Twitter and blogs is that there is generally agreement that the research calls into question the integrity of the peer review system, and is nothing to do with Open Access (beyond the fact that the only journals included in the study were Open Access). In fact, some Open Access publishers are taking the lead in trying to address some of the problems long-associated with the peer review process, such as eLife and the Nature Frontiers series of journals.

Last, and by no means least:

5.    Articles about Open Access that are not themselves Open Access. 

I know I’m not the only person to find this odd/frustrating/completely counter-intuitive. But, really? Is it some kind of elaborate joke on the part of the authors?
To read about some more frustrations with Open Access, this time from the perspective of a science librarian dealing with Open Access content, I recommend reading this post ('How open is it?') by Elizabeth Newbold at the British Library - we sit near to each other, so it's been interesting comparing notes this week!

There are a lot of exciting things happening during Open Access week (21-27 October 2013). I hope everyone has a good week, whatever they’re doing and wherever they are in the world.
I will be busy getting ready to launch our science-writing competition, Access to Understanding 2014, in partnership with the British Library. Look out here and on Twitter @EuropePMC_news in November for further announcements.


  1. Interesting list! For number five, see the Open Access Irony Awards, one way to vent your frustrations!

  2. If the best way to understand the behaviour of the senior echelons of any organisation is to assume it has been infiltrated by elements dedicated to its destruction, then the OA movement, which anyone can 'join' is certainly going to have its problems...

    Let's not forget there's a $15bn publishing interest that has every interesting in sowing FUD till the cows come home. It would be surprising indeed if the the internets were not awash with scum-topped waves of red herrings poisoned in the algal overgrowth vested interests weave their agnotological evil (see big tobacco, global warming, or sorry, would that be climate change?).

    Cameron Neylon would agree with you ( that the Green vs Gold terminology is unhelpful. I've never liked it: the very arbitrariness of the terms makes them hard to remember. So yeah, let's just say what we damn well mean.

    (A little) more open access irony here: