Explaining Open Access Journals with the Language of Math (for Those Who Like that Sort of Thing)

In my experience, the #1 confusion about open access journals (that is, “gold” open access journals, or journals that are made fully and immediately open access by their publishers) is the meaning of the word “open.”  Some mistakenly think that “open” has to do with how easy it is to publish in those journals.  But that is decidedly not the case.  No, the “open” in “open access journals” means that the journals make their content freely available online for all to read.  Put differently:

open access = anyone can read the journal
open access ≠ anyone can publish in the journal

This is hugely important: open access publishing is not self-publishing or vanity publishing!  Of course, just as some non-OA journals are higher quality and more selective than others, some OA journals are higher quality and more selective than others.  Before submitting an article to any journal, take a close look at its articles, authors, and editors!

So, I like to use those two pseudo-equations to clarify open access, and I’m finding that a Cartesian graph comes in handy too, to explain that the openness of a journal is completely independent of the journal’s quality or rigor.

Imagine a graph with an x-axis and y-axis, where the x-axis is level of openness, and the y-axis is the quality or rigor or prestige. There are journals in all four quadrants: excellent subscription-based journals, excellent open access journals, crappy subscription journals, and crappy open access journals.

Cartesian graph - openness and quality

I’m an advocate for open access publishing, so I wish I could say that all open access journals are high quality.  But I can’t.  Unfortunately, wherever there is a chance for a profit, there will be profiteers.  And recently there has been an explosion of “predatory” open access journals whose mission is profit, not the dissemination of scholarly information.  It’s not that they publish scholarship and happen to have fees to cover expenses.  No, it’s that they charge fees to make a profit and happen to publish some articles, many of questionable quality. For more about predatory open access journals, see Jeffrey Beall’s List of Potential, Possible, or Probable Predatory Scholarly Open-Access Publishers.  Unfortunately, by having shady practices, these journals put the reputation of open access more generally at risk.  But don’t let these predatory journals turn you against open access.  Remember, there are also very excellent (top-tier, high-impact, etc.) open access journals!

So what’s the upshot of all this?  We must carefully evaluate all journals – print or electronic, subscription or open access!

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About Jill Cirasella

Jill Cirasella is the Associate Librarian for Public Services and Scholarly Communication at the Graduate Center, CUNY.
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