Open Access Publishing: An Unexpectedly Hard Challenge

Imagine working on a research project for several years. Many people’s blood, sweat and tears culminate in a magnum opus that will triumphantly ring through the ages. The paper is written, the figures are perfected, every detail is triple checked by the team. The peer review has passed and the final submission in nigh… Then you are given an invoice for a fee to publish in the journal?? What is going on? Shouldn’t the journal be paying you for submitting your precious scientific work?

What is open access?

Open access publishing is the simple idea that publicly funded published science is accessible for free by anyone with an internet connection. This is a noble cause as (most) science is funded with taxpayers money and therefore, the public have a right to see the science without a paywall. But in practice this is much more challenging than you may think.

While many papers are available on sites like PubMed or on a journal’s website, many of the elite tier journals require a subscription or a fee to read each paper. Open access publishing has been pushed at international level with initiatives like Plan S from a consortium of national research agencies and funders from twelve European countries called cOAlition S.

The difficulty of making work open access causes some challenges. Science becomes less accessible to the public who now must pay to a journal to access work which they have funded through tax. Secondly this slows down research for all as scientists in the field find it harder to keep up to date with the literature.

In fact there was a paper about the growing accessibility of science published in 1992 which was ironically behind a paywall…

Why is Open Access hard to achieve?

Someone must pay for processing, formatting, selection, peer reviewing, and publishing of the article online on a reliable server. There are different models of open access such as Gold, Green, Bronze, Diamond/Platinum, Hybrid, Black, FAIR, Gratis and Libre, all with different requirements.

The most widely used model is “Gold” open access where authors pay a fee to the journals to make them open access. These are called Article Processing Fees (APCs) and can range from 1000 to 12000 USD depending on the publisher. Originally, these were small fees, however they have been increasing and this leads to open access publishing becoming more expensive for researchers, despite the benefits to society. APCs can deepen global inequalities as less fortunate researchers and institutions will find these costs more difficult to cover. There is also the question of why journals should profit from work which they have not funded.

Many researchers have access to papers through their institute (institutional access) who have subscriptions to big journals like Elsevier. However, these vary, and some institutes don’t have these access agreements.

I want to stress that this is not a case of “money grabbing publishers unfairly increasing prices for profit”. A lot of time and effort is spent on articles and many ultimately don’t get published. So there is a clear justification for this. However in January 2019 the board of the Journal of Informetrics resigned in protest over APCs and they formed their own journal (Quantitative Science Studies). April 2023 the entire board two journals resigned in protest over high APCs (Neuroimage and Neuroimage:Reports). So there is some strong opposition to the Gold open access model.

Some authors distribute their work on a separate repository as well, these can be manuscripts before peer review or peer reviewed work that has not been formatted. This is the Idea behind “green” open access. This works in theory but is dependent on how easy it is to find this other repository and depending on the copyright agreement could clash with the journals agreement.

It’s no secret that researchers use alternatives to get around paywalls. Contacting the authors directly for the full article is a common approach and most scientists are happy to share the full articles. In fact, ResearchGate has a button specifically for this. However, this relies on the author response time and so isn’t practical or fast on a big scale. Websites like Scihub and Unpaywall are also used, despite Scihub facing multiple legal challenged over copyright. This is called “black” open access where the sharing of the manuscript is not entirely legal.

The Future of Open Access

The current model is unsustainable, but there are proposed solutions for financially sustainable and fair Open Access. Someone still must pay for these services but shifting the bill could alleviate the issues. Here are some alternatives where the cost is covered by the scientific institution (Diamond open access)

  1. The European Research council (ERC) backed “Horizon Europe” has a model where all ERC grant recipients must publish their work according to the principles of open science. This means that the ERC will cover the APC costs for open access publishing, or they can be peer reviewed and published on the open access platform “Open Research Europe” where the ERC will cover the cost.
  2. The nonprofit journal Public Library of Science (PLOS) has a model where Individual institutes pay PLOS a flat fee in return for researchers from the institute for free in PLOS journals. There are even with annual fees on a sliding scale depending on the circumstances of each subscribing institution.
  3. SCOAP a partnership between more than 3,000 libraries, funding agencies and research institutes, administered by CERN, Europe’s particle-physics laboratory near Geneva, Switzerland. Publishers have a contract directly with CERN, and the participating institutions contribute what would otherwise have been subscription fees into a central pot that then covers article-processing costs at participating journals.


Open communication to society and the academic community is at the heart of science. If all papers were behind paywalls this would lead to a more nepotistic and opaque system and widen the gap between the public and scientists. However finding a solution that keeps all the parties happy and will be a challenge for the foreseeable future.



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