The dilemma of open access

Open access publications are a Good Thing. People can read and cite your work free of charge at any time from any where. However, the open access movement has ignored a big opportunity cost associated with open access publication: we can’t all afford the cost. In the Edwards’ lab we’re going to try and level the playing field. Either we publish open access and we only cite open access, freely available articles, or we publish closed access and then we can cite every article. The choice is upto the authors, the editors, and the journals. If the authors want to cite closed-access articles, if the editors require us to cite closed-access articles, or the journal policy requires that, then we can not and will not pay open access fees.

In 2013 the Edwards’ lab contributed to over a dozen papers. The open access fees associated with those papers are in the range $1,500 – $5,000. For example, Source Code for Biology and Medicine charged $2,030 for the scaffold_builder paper. The paper we published in ISME J was $3,300 for the open access fee, and an additional $2,696 for the color figures ($5,996 for one paper!). Even a cursory calculation tells you that this is not sustainable. My grants typically have in the order $5,000 for publications over the lifetime of the grant. Any additional money I spend on publications requires that I spend less on something else.

However, we measure publications effectiveness by their citation index: how many times that paper is cited by others. Therefore, whenever we cite a paper, we are contributing to the importance of that paper and that authors work. There is a debate about whether open access increases citation rate [e.g. Gargouri et al; Moed; and others], and that is a clear advantage of paying the fees, but it it worth spending a PostDocs salary on?

So we are left with a dilemma: I can spend the money on open access publications, or I can spend the money on people and supplies. I fully support open access movement, almost all (if not all?) of our papers are published open access. However, it is not an even playing field if my competitors are publishing their work in the same journals but not paying the open access fee and we are being forced to cite them. Remember, ethically you should not cite a paper that you have not read (reading the abstract does not count!), and we do not have access to most closed access papers without paying for them individually (so I get doubly penalized: once for paying open access fees, and a second time for paying for someone else’s publication costs). SDSU does not have the funds to pay for access to large numbers of journals (California has had a hard few years with its budget!).

We are going to try an experiment: we will only cite papers that we can access without restriction. This means if your paper is published closed access we will not cite it in our work, regardless of how good or important it is. The metric we will use is that we will only cite papers where we can access the whole article from SDSU without additional payment. If authors, reviewers, editors, or journal policy requires that we cite a paper that we can not access without paying for, then I will not pay open access fees – the playing field has to be level.