Open access is coming. The radical European Plan S is just the latest of major pushes to reform the current expensive and irrational model. Since the second half of the 20th century, academic authors have usually published without fees, while a handful of private publishers reap handsome margins by overcharging libraries.
It is such a peculiar system that people outside academia find it hard to grasp: We are financed by taxpayers to give the outcomes of our research to private publishers; our libraries have then to buy costly subscriptions to access this very content with, again, taxpayers’ money; taxpayers cannot access the content. Many argue, convincingly, that this model is a rip-off and should be reformed. Open access promises an alternative model in which publishers charge authors (actually, their employers) just once, at the time of publication, but works are subsequently accessible online for free to everyone (including to the taxpayers who foot the bill).
The transition to open access is, well, complicated
Discussions about the pros and cons of open access are raging, and it is difficult yet to envisage the details of how this new economic model should work to be sustainable and fair to publishers, authors, and libraries alike. As research practices differ widely across academic tribes, a one-size-fits-all approach is unlikely to succeed. For example, low-budget disciplines like the humanities might struggle to support publication costs that are negligible to high-powered STEM like chemistry—my esteemed colleague Martin Eve discussed this in his 2014 (obviously open-access) book.
This notwithstanding, the move towards open access seems at this stage irreversible, particularly in STEM disciplines such as GIScience and data science. It seems therefore a good idea to start thinking about open-access venues for our research sooner rather than later. In particular, the more leading researchers publish their work in open-access journals, the easier this transition will be for early-career researchers, who might otherwise decide to stick to traditional venues to maximise their chances of employment and promotion. See my list of open access resources for GIScience.
How to avoid predatory publishers
The transition to open access faces several challenges, including that of predatory publishers that cast a shadow over the whole sector. These are small, for-profit organisations that present themselves as scientific publishers, but are only interested in getting quick cash from naive authors. They can be spotted by the following signs:
- Overly generic journal titles, e.g. International Journal of Science, Engineering, Medicine and the Arts.
- Poor communication, including incorrect grammar and sad typography.
- Aggressive and low-cost advertising practices, mainly through bulk emails with weird fonts and colours.
- Low APCs ($100–$200) with the promise of immediate publication, which implies lack of peer-review.
- No authors working in well-established universities on the editorial board.
Considering the enormous scale of predatory publishing, listing reputable publishers in our field is more effective than trying to compile huge blacklists, which are problematic for obvious reasons. As highlighted by the case of the list by librarian Jeffrey Beall, predatory publishers do not enjoy being called predatory.
Predatory publications are bad for you
If you are an early-career researcher, you should stay away from predatory publishers with particular care. Whoever publishes in such fake journals suffers reputational damage, and even citing them is a display of poor judgement. Sadly, many researchers in the Global South publish in these venues, possibly attracted by the low APCs. If you wish to study and work in top North-American and European institutions, having publications in predatory journals is a worrying signal that can severely curtail your chances in a job/enrolment application. If you happen to have made this mistake in the past, it is advisable to retract—or at least omit—these publications from your CV.