A Response to Jeffrey Beall’s Critique of Open Access

I recently became a member of the American Association of University Professors (AAUP) and today was dismayed to see Jeffrey Beall’s article What the Open-Access Movement Doesn’t Want You to Know in the latest issue of its journal, Academe. (I joined because as a member of Virginia Tech’s Faculty Senate, AAUP has been helpful in advising us on increasing the role of Faculty Senate in university governance.)

For those who may not know, Jeffrey Beall is a librarian at the University of Colorado-Denver, and through his blog Scholarly Open Access exposes academic “predatory publishers” (pay-to-publish scams that perform little to no peer review) and other sketchy doings in academic publishing. While this is a tremendous service to the scholarly community, he has unfairly blamed these problems on open access as a whole. It became apparent just how off the rails Beall had gone when he published The Open-Access Movement is Not Really about Open Access in the journal TripleC (in the non-peer reviewed section; also see Michael Eisen’s response, Beall’s Litter). If you enjoy right-wing nuttiness (yes, George Soros is involved) you really should read it.

Beall’s critiques of open access are not always as factual as they could be, so as an open access advocate I am concerned when his polemics are presented to an academic audience that may not know all the facts. So below is my response to selections from his article:

The open-access movement has been around for more than a dozen years

Actually it has been around longer than that- Stevan Harnad made his “subversive proposal” in 1994 on a Virginia Tech email list.

The open-access movement is a coalition that aims to bring down the traditional scholarly publishing industry and replace it with voluntarism and server space subsidized by academic libraries and other nonprofits. It is concerned more with the destruction of existing institutions than with the construction of new and better ones.

This is quite an evidence-free paragraph. Where is the coalition, and where is the goal stated of bringing down the traditional scholarly publishing industry? Who has said all we need is voluntarism and server space? No one I know of.

The movement uses argumentum ad populum, stating only the advantages of providing free access to research and failing to point out the drawbacks (predatory publishers, fees charged to authors, and low-quality articles).

There is frequent discussion of these problems. Credit Beall for bringing attention to predatory publishers, but it’s less of a problem than he makes it out to be (and one seemingly devoid of data- Beall would strengthen his claims if he could document the number of authors victimized and/or the amount of money lost). A majority of open access journals do not charge authors, and those that do usually have waivers. There are also plenty of high-quality open access journals like PLOS Biology, generally considered tops in its field. And we know that “low-quality articles” could never appear in a subscription journal.

It’s hard to argue against “free”—and free access is the chief selling point of open-access publishing…

Actually open access is not just about “free.” OA means free as in cost (to the reader) but also free as in freedom (open licensing). As a librarian, Beall should know the barriers that copyright presents in the use of scholarship by libraries and researchers. OA advocates know that scholarly publishing does cost something, and are actively working on alternatives to the broken subscription model.

In the so-called gold open-access model, authors are charged a fee, called the “article processing charge,” upon acceptance of a manuscript.

This is simply wrong. Gold open access describes OA journals that publish peer-reviewed articles. A majority of them do not have an article processing charge (APC). APCs are just one model of providing open access. It’s true that predatory publishing is based on this model as a money-making scam. This is why authors need to know something about the journals where they submit articles.

Some publishers and journals do not charge fees to researchers and still make their content freely accessible and free to read. These publishers practice platinum open access, which is free to the authors and free to the readers.

“Platinum” open access must be Beall’s invention, because no one else uses this term. Open access journals (“gold” open access) includes journals with fees and those without fees.

A third variety of open-access publishing, often labeled as green open access, is based in academic libraries…

Lots of libraries do have repositories, but it’s not accurate to say that all (or even most) archiving is based there. There are plenty of disciplinary repositories, and for-profit ones like Academia.edu.

…the green open-access movement is seeking to convert these repositories into scholarly publishing operations. The long-term goal of green open access is to accustom authors to uploading postprints to repositories in the hope that one day authors will skip scholarly publishers altogether.

Maybe some think this, but I wouldn’t call it widespread. Most scholarly publishing in libraries (that is, journal or monograph publishing) is a separate operation from article archiving. And no one thinks peer review can be skipped, which seems to be an implication here.

Despite sometimes onerous mandates, however, many authors are reluctant to submit their postprints to repositories.

This is unfortunately true, but Beall doesn’t mention that many of the “onerous mandates” were passed unanimously by the same faculty members who must observe them, because they became convinced of the benefits of open access to research.

Moreover, the green open-access model mostly eliminates all the value added that scholarly publishers provide, such as copyediting and long-term digital preservation.

Most OA advocates agree that scholarly publishers provide value- after all, some of them publish OA journals. But the choice of examples is odd. I’m one of many authors who has had the experience of copy editing actually introducing errors into my carefully composed article. And in some cases repositories are a better bet for long-term digital preservation than journals, which can stop publishing without a preservation plan. In short, the value added that is claimed by many publishers is coming under question, and rightfully so in my view.

The low quality of the work often published under the gold and green open-access models provides startling evidence of the value of high-quality scholarly publishing.

This makes little sense. An archived (“green”) article can be of the highest quality and may have been published in one of the prestigious journals Beall venerates. And again, there are many well regarded open access journals.

When authors become the customers in scholarly communication, those with the least funds are effectively prevented from participating; there is a bias against the underfunded.

Many OA advocates have identified the same problem with APCs, especially for authors from the developing world. But many of these journals have waivers, most OA journals don’t have charges, and new models are being developed that subsidize journals without charge to either author or reader. It’s not accurate to portray fee-based publishing as the only open access model.

Subscription journals have never discriminated on the basis of an author’s ability to pay an article-processing charge.

No, they just discriminate against libraries.

Gold open access devalues the role of the consumer in scholarly research… Open access is making readers secondary players in the scholarly communication process.

This is just laughable. Yes, we should feel sorry for all those readers who can freely access all the peer-reviewed research that their tax dollars likely paid for.

In the next section of his article, “Questioning Peer Review and Impact Factors” Beall mostly critiques the doings of predatory publishers, which no one really disputes. But in criticizing predatory publishers (again unfairly extending his critique to all open access publishing) he gives subscription publishing a free pass. If you don’t think bad information has appeared in prestigious peer-reviewed subscription journals, try searching “autism and immunization” or “arsenic life.” Beall’s reverence for the journal impact factor isn’t supported by any facts (see my post Removing the Journal Impact Factor from Faculty Evaluation). So predatory publishers using fake journal impact factors shouldn’t be a concern- it’s a bogus metric to start with. Moreover, Beall fails to acknowledge that open peer review, in whatever form, would largely solve the problem of predatory publishing. If a journal claims to do peer review, then let’s see it!

If you’re an author from a Western country, the novelty and significance of your research findings are secondary to your ability to pay an article-processing charge and get your article in print.

Again- waivers are available and the majority of OA journals don’t have fees. It’s interesting that Beall uses words like “novelty” and “significance” here, as if unaware of real problems in peer review caused by these assessments (which are not attributable to predatory publishing).

Open-access advocates like to invoke the supposed lack of access to research in underdeveloped countries. But these same advocates fail to mention that numerous programs exist that provide free access to research, such as Research4Life and the World Health Organization’s Health Internetwork Access to Research Initiative. Open access actually silences researchers in developing and middle-income countries, who often cannot afford the author fees required to publish in gold open-access journals.

Once again, OA is not all about fees. It’s also odd that so many people from the developing world are huge open access advocates. Beall fails to mention that the large publishing companies have a lot of control over which countries get access and which do not. If they decide that India, for example, can afford to pay, then they don’t provide access. Wider open access would make these programs unnecessary. The main thing silencing researchers in developing countries is basic access to research, which inhibits their own research efforts.

…the top open-access journals will be the ones that are able to command the highest article-processing charges from authors. The more prestigious the journal, the more you’ll have to pay.

There may be some truth to this, and it’s a concern I share. However, APCs may be subject to price competition (an odd omission from someone who is so market-oriented). Beall has identified the biggest problem to my mind, which is journal prestige. Prestige means that mostly we are paying for lots of articles to be rejected, which are then published elsewhere. Academia needs to determine whether continuing to do this is very smart, and whether other sources of research quality or impact might be available.

The era of merit in scholarly publishing is ending; the era of money has begun.

Another laugher. Beall must be unaware of his own library’s collections budget, or the 30-40% annual profit made by Elsevier, Wiley, Informa, etc. If he is concerned about merit (and especially predatory publishing), he ought to be advocating for some form of open peer review.

Most open-access journals compel authors to sign away intellectual property rights upon publication, requiring that their content be released under the terms of a very loose Creative Commons license.

As opposed to subscription journals, most of which which compel authors to transfer their copyright? Many open access journals allow authors to retain copyright.

Under this license, others can republish your work—even for profit—without asking for permission. They can create translations and adaptations, and they can reprint your work wherever they want, including in places that might offend you.

Wouldn’t it be awful to have your work translated or reprinted? I mean, no one actually wants to disseminate their work, do they? This is mostly scare-mongering about things that might happen .001% of the time. And because of the ever-so-slight chance someone might make money from your work, or it might be posted to a site you don’t agree with, we shouldn’t share research? This blog is licensed CC BY, and I don’t care if either of those things happen. What’s not logical is for these largely unfounded fears to lead us back to paywalls and all-rights-reserved copyright.

Scholarly open-access publishing has made many tens of thousands of scholarly articles freely available, but more information is not necessarily better information.

I don’t think anyone has ever claimed this. Even if there were only subscription journals, there would be new journals and more articles published.

Predatory journals threaten to bring down the whole cumulative system of scholarly communication…

I think there may be some exaggeration here.

In the long term, the open-access movement will be seen as an ephemeral social cause that tried and failed to topple an industry.

Open access is not looking very ephemeral at the moment. The “industry” seems to be trying to find ways to accommodate it so they don’t go out of business. Open access advocates are not necessarily against the “industry,” just the broken subscription/paywall model they use. Indeed, traditional publishers like Elsevier and Wiley are profiting handsomely from hybrid open access, and starting OA journals or converting existing ones to open access.

Be wary of predatory publishers…

Finally, something we can agree on!

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About Philip Young

Philip Young is Scholarly Communication Librarian at Virginia Tech where he supports outreach about open access, copyright/open licensing, open data, ORCID, and metrics/altmetrics.
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20 Responses to A Response to Jeffrey Beall’s Critique of Open Access

  1. Mike Taylor says:

    Thank you, Philip, for this very welcome antidote to Beall’s irrational paranoia. I have just one quibble with your response. You quoted Beall’s assertion “Subscription journals have never discriminated on the basis of an author’s ability to pay an article-processing charge”, but omitted to note that this is simply false. Most subscription journals levy page-charges for articles over a given length, or for colour illustrations — something that most Gold-OA journals do NOT do. In fact, substantial and well-illustrated articles may well cost an author more to publish in a typical subscription journal than in most Gold-OA journals.

    • Philip Young says:

      Thanks for the correction Mike- I did overlook page charges!

    • Jan Velterop says:

      Absolutely right, Mike. I was about to make the same comment, before I saw you already did. As we agree, a minor point, in Philip’s thorough, measured, and most welcome response to Beall’s unwarranted – and frankly, rather strange – anti-OA rants.

    • Felipe G. Nievinski says:

      Indeed, for many non-OA journals, their average paper is longer than the non-charged page length. So in effect the majority of authors in these pay-walled journals did end up being charged. Double-dipping, and I’m not even talking about hybrid OA. See, e.g., IEEE journals (which is quite an impressive fleet). I’ve mentioned this at

  2. Liz Wager says:

    Others do use the term “platinum” open access, eg the publisher Taylor & Francis on its website see http://editorresources.taylorandfrancisgroup.com/open-access/

  3. Jim Till says:

    “Platinum” open access isn’t Jeffrey Beall’s invention, To the best of my knowledge, the term was first used by Tom Wilson in a post to the BOAI Forum dated 19 April 2007. See: boaiforum messages.

    • Philip Young says:

      Thanks Liz and Jim- the term was new to me and I follow OA fairly closely. In any case, I think it’s fair to say that the term isn’t widely accepted. I’m not a fan of the colors- I’d rather just refer to archiving and OA journals.

      • The term “diamond” has also been used. I think “Gold” confuses people because they associate it with money (das Geld?).

        Thanks for this excellent article.

      • Felipe G. Nievinski says:

        You may not like the particular labels (platinum, in this case), but the distinction between journals that charge author fees and those that don’t is important enough to warrant its own shorthand. The absence of author fees is really the jewel in the (golden) crown.

  4. Angela Cochran says:

    It would be nice to know how many OA articles have been published with no fee. Some journals on the DOAJ list in the “no charges” category have been found to have some charges. Likewise, some content is published by subscription based journals and made freely available with no OA tag. How many waivers are granted is a big fat secret as well. I have asked these questions of OA publishers and I never get a response. Some transparency to back up the hype would be much appreciated.

    • Philip Young says:

      I think I’ve seen data on OA articles published with/without fees but can’t find it at the moment (at a conference)- anyone?

      By subscription based journals making articles freely available, are you talking about hybrid OA or something else?

      I agree more transparency would be welcome, but having APC prices known by all involved is a big advance over the current situation when not even libraries can tell you how much subscriptions cost, due to bundling, non-disclosure agreements, etc.

    • Mike Taylor says:

      I have asked these questions of OA publishers and I never get a response. Some transparency to back up the hype would be much appreciated.

      I trust that the irony of someone who works in subscription publishing asked for more transparency is not lost on anyone here.

      Ubiquity, for example, explain that 16% of their APC goes into a waiver fund, with the implication that about 19% of their papers are published under a waiver.

      Meanwhile, over in Total Lack Of Transparency World, Elsevier’s David Tempest explains subscription-contract confidentiality clauses.

      • Angela Cochran says:

        Oh please. I am not trying to convert the masses. I am just saying, no one will tell me, for example, how much on average PeerJ gets per article published. PLoS won’t say how many waivers they give. If waivers is the excuse for why APCs are okay then why is it wrong to ask how many are given out? Anyway, it’s their business, not mine. There are a lot of “many” “most of” etc, in this post–a post that is “ironically” calling out someone else for not providing evidence of his opinions.

    • Philip Young says:

      I don’t know if the data you are looking for exists, but Stuart Lawson recently posted this article about fee waivers: http://figshare.com/articles/Fee_waivers_for_open_access_journals/1415955

    • Walt Crawford has done excellent work on OA-journals, DOAJ and especially on Bealls list. He has published his works in his Cites and Insights – http://citesandinsights.info/.
      As to the question regarding “how many OA articles have been published with no fee”, Walts data based on an analysis of articles published in 7.301 of the journals listed in DOAJ (journals without an English language interface excluded (approx.. 2.800 journals) suggested that from 2012-2014 some 670.000 articles have been published in journals charging APCs (the numbers do not tell anything about the volume of waivers)! Some 470.000 have been published in OA-journals charging no APCs. That is 60% with APCs and 40% without APCs. Of the remaining 2.800 OA- journals from DOAJ not included in Walts study approx.. 80% do not charge APCs.
      Please note that we are talking articles published in genuine OA-journals. Articles published as Hybrid OA articles in subscription journals are out of scope here.

      Walts works on Bealls list – Ethics and Access 1: The Sad Case of Jeffrey Beall (http://citesandinsights.info/civ14i4.pdf) and Journals, “Journals” and Wannabes: Investigating The List ( http://citesandinsights.info/civ14i7.pdf) – are really worth reading if you would like a more detailed look at the list.

  5. “Platinum Open Access” wins the webby for most mutually exclusive branding 2015!
    I’m also adopting it as my go-to, definitive example of open washing.

    I just read “The Dark Side of Government in the Sunshine, http://www.governing.com/columns/smart-mgmt/col-dark-side-transparency-government.html“, which is the Open Data/OpenGov equivalent; swap out the tenets of Openness and the opinion-driven ideas, and the template reveals itself.

  6. Pingback: Weekend reads: Gay canvassing study redux; editors fired; how the world's biggest faker was caught - Retraction Watch at Retraction Watch

  7. Felipe G. Nievinski says:

    Also, “author-services companies”, however worrisome, is certainly not an issue exclusive to OA publishers.

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