Libraries and Learning

Open Access Without Tears

October 8, 2015

Let’s say you’re an academic who needs to develop a record of scholarship, either because you are up for tenure, you hope someday to be in a secure academic job, or you need to bring in grant dollars to support the research you do.

Or we could just say you’re an academic.

Let’s also say you’ve wondered whether your work will ever make an impact when the list price for your article in a Google search is $37.50 or the book you published about poverty is being sold at the astonishing price of $145 and you aren’t sure why it costs so much. And let’s say you once had a library account at a research university but now you’re between jobs and your library ID just stopped working and you’re beginning to wonder how long before your friends get weary of sending you PDFs.

Or we could just say you’re an academic. The majority of academics aren’t in tenured jobs at R1 institutions.

Is there any way to do things differently without compromising quality and without threatening your future? You’ve seen debates on Twitter, where some folks get so passionate about open access it’s kind of scary. You also keep seeing articles about “predatory” publishers who charge money to be published in journals that are bogus, and that’s scary, too. Is there a way to do good, respected research and still make it available to anyone in the world who wants to read it?

Actually, yes, in many cases. And it’s not necessarily that hard, though it does add extra steps and can require a bit of research up front.

Open Access Journals There are journals that anyone can read for free that don’t require a fee from the author to publish. Some of them are highly respected though few of them have the long histories to carry the prestige that the big-name journals have. An exception is Cultural Anthropology, a flagship society journal that has gone open access and is trying to develop and maintain a new funding model to keep it open. My profession’s major journal, College and Research Libraries, has also taken the leap and even the back issues are digitized and freely available, which is awesomely great when you want to share something with others by linking to it. Ask around; keep an eye out. There may be a brash new open access kid on the block that someday will have the name recognition that journals established in the print era have. You can explore the Directory of Open Access Journals’ subject lists, but people in your discipline who care about this stuff may be better guides to newly emerging reputations.

If you are working in a field where grant money can cover costs of publishing (and where funders increasingly expect public access to the work they fund), there are likely valuable open access options that cover their operation costs through author-side fees. Again, find out from colleagues which ones are most worthwhile. It’s fairly obvious to anyone who looks closely that some so-called journals are actually opportunistic scams; they publish journals in dozens of disciplines, they haven’t actually published many articles, they have generic titles that you’ve never heard of, they sponsor expensive conferences in exotic tourist locations, they promise to have your article reviewed and published within a completely unrealistic timeframe. No question that those are fraudulent. There are also “respectable” scams – journals that charge subscriptions but will, for several thousand dollars, make your article open access. This so-called “hybrid” approach is expensive and hard to justify, given the publisher is getting paid two ways for the same journal and is making a better profit margin than most hedge-fund managers.

But there are a number of reputable publishers developing new open publishing platforms. Perhaps the best known is PLOS (the Public Library of Science) which has been around since 2001. Though the author fees for some of these journals may seem high, the publisher offers options for non-funded scholars. Alternatively, your institution (perhaps through your library) can help cover author-side fees. A just-launched enterprise is the Open Library of Humanities, which is funded not by authors (humanities scholars rarely get grants that cover publication costs), but by libraries around the world that want to make scholarship more widely available in a sustainable manner. While it’s too new to have a long-established reputation, it is a well-thought-out alternative to business as usual.

So many scholars are concerned about the growing power and profits of five multinational corporations which own most of our journals, they are willing to try new things. Timothy Gower, a mathematician who received his discipline’s highest honor, has just helped to found a new journal, Discrete Analysis, which will operate exactly like a traditional journal except that it will be free to all and will reside on arXiv, a research-sharing platform that’s older than the web, with a little help from a company that will help handle submissions. At the start, the whole thing is free, thanks to soft startup funding, but when that runs out the most authors will pay is the cost of a couple of beers to cover the publication’s modest expenses. Compare that to the $3,000 – $5,000 that established publishers charge to make an article open access.

Self-Archiving This is the hidden gem for scholars in fields where prestige is still locked up in journals that are not open access and the new options don’t quite meet your needs. Most traditional subscription-based journals will allow you to post a version of your article online, either a draft before peer review, a finished copy in manuscript form, or even the final PDF. You can check in advance by searching the SHERPA/RoMEO database. If the journal you’re most interested in doesn’t offer a self-archiving option or isn’t listed in the database, contact the editor. You may be able to negotiate an opportunity to post a version online. If you’d like some contract language, the SPARC addendum is a model document you can use. It’s best to check well before you submit, because you usually find out what rights the publisher demands just as your article is nearly ready to be published, when it’s too late.

What if putting articles online is not something you’ve ever done before? Chances are your institution will do it for you. Many academic libraries have an institutional repository and will be delighted to put your article up for you. If your library doesn’t have a repository, or you’re not a long-time affiliate of any particular institution, you can post your things at or a disciplinary repository. Many scholars create profiles and post their stuff at ResearchGate or These are social networks for scientists and academics and make it possible to upload papers, but they are for-profit companies that require creating accounts and I’ve never quite figured out what their business model is, which always makes me wonder what kind of “free” we’re talking about. Bottom line, there are multiple ways to make your research freely available online even if it’s published traditionally, though perhaps not in its final published version.

What about Books? For many fields, books remain the gold standard, and while some open access options are available, it’s less common than for journals. There are high costs associated with the editorial and other work involved in turning a manuscript into a book, and while there are any number of self-publishing options today, it’s usually the expensive work done by humans other than the author that lends a book both quality and name-brand prestige. But doesn’t it break your heart a little when a book you worked so hard on is read by so few? Libraries aren’t buying them in the numbers they once did, and distribution through bookish channels (other than by the Everything Store) is iffy, though exposure is a benefit of publishing with a good university press. Edited volumes are another beast – sometimes you can post a version of your chapter online, but it all depends on the publication agreement. Ask for it before you agree to contribute.

Is there a way to share some of the knowledge that’s in your book with the world even if it’s too expensive for most people (including precarious academics like yourself) to purchase? There’s nothing to stop you from pulling some of the ideas out of your book and making them accessible to non-specialists while also giving your book a little extra exposure. It costs nothing to start a blog, though you do have to spend a bit if you don’t want ads to appear on it. (That’s how they support the service.) You could try Medium, which is easy to use and attractive, though again the lack of a visible means of support makes me wonder how long it will be around. And there is also Humanities Commons – free hosting for a blog along with other scholarly networking options.

What if you’re just noodling around an idea for a book? Writing about your ideas online and sharing them with those who might be interested won’t harm your chances of getting a book proposal accepted. In fact, it may help. Doug Armato of the University of Minnesota Press has a phrase for this: serial scholarship. Books don’t arise out of nothing; there are usually conference papers, articles, and informal debates that come first. By testing ideas publicly, you can share links through Listservs, Twitter, Facebook, or your digital water cooler of choice, and it might eventually lead to interest from a press.

In the Final Analysis There are studies that says making your scholarship open access will increase its visibility and the chances it will be cited. That’s nice – but that’s not why I personally am committed to open access. I just think scholarship is worth sharing, and it’s a shame to limit its potential audience to those who are in a position to pay or have affiliation with an institution that can pay on their behalf.


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Babel Fish Bouillabaisse II Copyright © 2019 by Barbara Fister is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.