Making the Choice: Open Access vs. Traditional Journals

Many researchers struggle with the decision of whether to publish in an OA journal versus a traditional (and perhaps more well-established) journal. The four main factors to consider when making this decision are visibility, cost, prestige, and speed.

Updated on September 13, 2018

A person standing between one arrow pointing to the left representing a wrong decision and another arrow pointing to the right representing a right decision

We live in a society that is increasingly Internet-centric, and this shift in the way that we communicate, connect, share, and do business with each other has deeply impacted scientific research and academic publishing.

When tackling large research questions, collaboration among researchers is essential, and since the first issue of the Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society was disseminated in 1665, this collaboration has been highly dependent on the publishing industry.

However, since the advent of the Internet, scientists no longer require access to the latest hard copy of their favorite journal to keep in touch with the most recent developments. Indeed, it is no longer necessary to leave the lab and spend all afternoon in the library stacks – much of the information needed to do research is available on our own personal computers.

In modern society, research is disseminated through many venues, including social media sites, blogs, Twitter, and open access (OA) scholarly journals that are freely available to anyone with Internet access. As opposed to traditional journals, which often charge readers hefty fees to access journal content, OA journals provide content for free on the web and charge researchers to publish their findings.

Although the idea of a journal that is freely available to the public with no financial barriers to access seems great in theory, when it comes time to publish, many researchers struggle with the decision of whether to do so in an OA journal versus a traditional (and perhaps more well-established) journal. The four main factors to consider when making this decision are visibility, cost, prestige, and speed.

4 Factors to Consider When Deciding Between an Open Access or Traditional Journal:

1. Visibility

Publishing your article in an OA journal means that more people are likely to see it, simply because more people will be able to access it. Indeed, one study showed that full-text downloads of OA papers were 89% higher, PDF downloads were 42% higher, and unique visitors were 23% higher than those for subscription-access articles.

Additionally, a survey of both science and humanities/social science authors revealed that the belief that OA publications are read more widely is the second most common reason for deciding to publish in an OA journal. Although it is still uncertain whether this increase in downloads and visitors translates into an increased citation rate, the greater visibility achieved with OA may allow you to reach potential collaborators more easily.

Additionally, your data will be available to educators and the general public, most of whom do not have access to expensive journal subscriptions.

2. Cost

Both traditional and OA journals may charge a small fee at the time of submission to cover editorial and peer review-related costs. The difference arises in the post-acceptance fees.

Traditional journals commonly charge per page (often $100-250 each) and/or per color figure ($150-1000 each). However, OA journals typically charge a flat article processing charge that can range from $8 to as much as $5000 (Cell Reports). In some cases, when authors genuinely do not have the means to pay publication fees, they can apply for full or partial waivers, depending on their financial capability.

The other cost is associated with subscriptions, which can be prohibitive, with some academic subscriptions costing as much as $40,000 for full online access to articles. These steep costs may even cause some libraries to cancel subscriptions, which harms both readers and authors. Indeed, the high cost of subscriptions led Harvard University to urge its academics to “Consider submitting articles to open-access journals, or to ones that have reasonable, sustainable subscription costs; move prestige to open access.”

3. Prestige

Some researchers are more reticent to publish in OA journals because they may not be as well known as some of the larger, more well-established journals in a given field. Indeed, the most common reason cited by science and humanities/social science authors for deciding not to publish in an OA journal is related to concerns about the perceived quality of OA publications. It is also important to note that many OA journals are new and have not yet received their first impact factor (IF). For example, in 2013, 179 of 500 OA journals published by Springer were given an IF.

However, high-IF OA journals are available in a variety of fields. In the field of biology, the OA journals PLOS Biology, BMC Biology, and PLOS ONE ranked 1st, 4th, and 10th by IF, respectively, in 2009 according to Journal Citation Reports. Additionally, that same year, PLOS Computational Biology, BMC Systems Biology, and BMC Bioinformatics ranked 1st, 3rd, and 4th in the category of mathematical and computational biology.

Regardless, the fact remains that many academics still place importance on “brand-name” journals because publication in such journals can increase their chances of being promoted, gaining tenure, and obtaining funding for grant proposals.

4. Speed

The survey mentioned above also revealed that approximately 65-70% of science authors consider “the speed from acceptance to publication” to be “very important” or “quite important” when deciding which journal to publish in, while approximately 80-85% of these authors believe that “the speed from submission to first decision” plays a “very important” or “quite important” role in their decision of where to publish.

Of course, publishing in any peer-reviewed journal will always entail some degree of delay from submission to acceptance and finally to publication. This is especially problematic in the clinical sciences, as the publication of results lags behind trial completion by a median of 21 months. Such delays in the release of new data can have many negative consequences for patients awaiting new therapies.

In particular, the traditional method of paper publication creates significant delays due to

  • The need to bundle articles into issues
  • Backlogs of publishable articles due to space limitations
  • The time required to print physical copies of the journal and distribute them

Many OA journals advertise a much more rapid publication process, as reflected in their mission statements (PeerJ: “Fast, fair, and widely read. Our mission is to help the world efficiently publish its knowledge.”; PLOS ONE: “accelerating the publication of peer-reviewed science”). Indeed, a 2013 study examined 135 journals listed in the Scopus citation index and showed that the time from acceptance to publication is significantly shorter for OA journals compared with traditional journals.

Thus, if speed is an important factor in your decision regarding where to publish, an OA journal may be the best choice.

Other Aspects to Consider When Deciding

In sum, when choosing between OA and traditional journals, it is important to consider the journal's visibility, the cost of publication, the IF (or “prestige”) of the journal, and the speed of publication. Due to the many high-IF journals to choose from in the biological and clinical sciences, publication in an OA journal may be a good option for researchers in those areas. Researchers in other fields may lean more toward traditional journals that they know and trust.

Evidence for how OA is changing the landscape of the publishing industry overall can be seen in the many once-traditional journals that are now considered as “hybrid” OA publications. These journals allow authors to pay an extra “open access fee” to ensure free access to their article. For example, PNAS charges authors a fee of $1700 ($1300 if their institution has a subscription to the journal) on top of the usual charges to make an article OA.

Thus, it may not be necessary to choose between “strictly OA” and “strictly traditional” journals, as publishing in a hybrid OA journal with a high IF may provide the best of both worlds: the high visibility of an OA journal combined with the prestige of a well-known traditional journal.

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