Challenges for open access journals: quantity, quality and economic sustainability

Author: Ernest Abadal (Universitat de Barcelona)

Citation: Abadal, Ernest (2012). "Retos de las revistas en acceso abierto: cantidad, calidad y sostenibilidad económica "., 10,


Keywords: Journals, open access, editorial quality, funding

In this article, the author presents the model of open access journals as the model to disseminate scientific research more effectively. Furthermore his arguments are focused on the self improvement and dissemination of research in social performance and the creation of products and services. The study centers on three aspects: the growth of open access journals, which are the levels of quality and what their way of financing and support.

Table of contents:

1. Introduction
2. Objectives and methodology
3. Current situation
4. About quality
5. About economic sustainability
5.1 Publishing groups
5.2 Funding channels'means
6. Conclusions
7. Bibliography


1 Introduction

Open access to science refers to the free availability of scientific content in Internet, fundamentally articles from journals. This means users are not only able to consult them for free, but also to download, copy, print and distribute them. This is a model of spreading scientific knowledge that implies a radical transformation in the functioning of the scientific community.

To complete the change of paradigm all authors should be either publishing in open access journals (what is called the "gold road") or archiving in repositories the articles published in commercial journals (what is called the "green road"), so that, using these two roads or complementary strategies, open access to science could become universal.

There are several advantages to this new model that can be grouped into three sections. Firstly, using open access for research results and scientific publications implies a remarkable improvement on the workings of the scientific community. As articles are available without any barriers, the use and impact of the content increases, the quality of research improves and costs can be drastically reduced.
Secondly, open access also generates direct benefits on the society, since it facilitates the direct transfer of knowledge to the economic and social environment and also dissolves the barriers between rich and poor countries. Thirdly, open access allows for reusing information and data because some exploitation rights are ceded, so that derived products and services can be created.

Thus, if there are so many benefits in open access and they are so evident, why does it seem that progress has been limited? This question was already formulated by Harnad (2006) some years ago: why do we get the impression that it is taking a long time to achieve a 100% open access if this model allows for the maximization of access and impact of scientific content? Open access is well-known by authors, editors and scientific managers, but it also seems to be scarcely represented in scientific and technical edition and, after an initial stage of quick spread and growth, it is struggling to overcome the predominance of commercial publishing houses.

This text intends to answer the previous question by focusing in the area of scientific journals to identify their level of development and which challenges for the future they are facing.
The first open access scientific journals appeared in the early 1990s with the creation of Surfaces y Psycoloquy by Jean-Claude Guédon and Stevan Harnad, respectively. It is interesting to note that they are two of the main theorists and driving forces of open access to science. From then on, there has been an incessant dripping of new open access journals, while some other titles have gone from the subscription model to that of open access. In 2003, the appearance of the first journals created by the Public Library of Science (PLoS), especially the first one, PLoS Biology, gives a fundamental impulse and great visibility to the sector.

Regarding the typology of open access journals as defined by Melero and Abad (2008) we can distinguish among (1) those who are free to consult and free of charge for readers and authors, (2) those demanding a payment for publishing (paid by the author), (3) hybrid models (payment for subscription with open access articles) and (4) journals with subscription offering open access contents (sometimes delayed). Section 5 devoted to funding delves into this particular question.

2 Objectives and methodology

Twenty years after the first open access journals were published, it is relevant to make some questions regarding the current situation of open access journals to assess the level of development achieved. The questions are the following:

a) Which has been the quantitative growth of open access journals and which countries present the highest potential?
b) Which are the quality levels of their processes and published contents?
c) Which are the funding opportunities and their perspectives of economic sustainability?

On the other hand, these questions also connect to some doubts raised by traditional publishers to discredit open access journals. Answering those doubts will provide with objective data useful to know the reality of the open access domain in a more direct way.

Regarding methodology, bibliography has been revised, and secondly, some searches have been done on the descriptive aspects of open access journals coming from the following directories:

- Ulrich's periodicals directory
This is the most complete and reliable source to know the number of scientific journals existing in the world, despite it presents some gaps and inaccuracies, fundamentally because some data have not been updated: for example, the disappearance of some journals is particularly hard to detect.

- Directory of Open Access Journals (DOAJ)
This is the reference repertory strictly regarding open access journals. This directory is managed by Lund University, and includes those scientific journals presenting quality controls and allowing free access to the whole text.

3 Current situation

According to Ulrich's, there are more than 93,000 active journals in the world (54,358 of which present external review). These are considerable figures and have been increasing in the last years.1
Within this universe, the number of open access journals exceeds 11,000 titles, 6,798 of which present external review. Figure 1 shows these figures and the relation between them.

Revista científicas de acceso abierto

Figure 1. Open access scientific journals (Source: Ulrich's)

Whether we consider the total of scientific journals or only those having a peer review system, the percentage of open access titles reaches 12-13%. It is still a modest percentage, but neither insignificant nor just symbolic.

The distribution of titles per countries, as we can see on table 1, situates the United States in the first positions, followed by Brazil, Great Britain, Spain and India. The presence of two emergent states such as Brazil and India (and Turkey in the tenth position) is not a coincidence and is explained by the notable boost these countries are giving to scientific communication and open access policies.

Table 1. Countries publishing open access journals, in absolute numbers (2012)

        Country     Titles  
  1     United States     1362  
  2     Brazil     688  
  3     United Kingdom     534  
  4     Spain     409  
  5     India     388  
  6     Germany     244  
  7     Canada     235  
  8     Romania     223  
  9     Italy     197  
  10     Turkey     194  

Source: DOAJ

To understand the relative weight of these absolute numbers with respect to the total of journals of each country, Ulrich's is again a source for searches. Table 2 presents the proportion of open access journals with regard to the total of active scientific journals and the total of journals with external review (peer review) in each country.

Table 2. Percentage of open access journals 

  Country     Total journals     Open access     %     With peer review     Open access     %  
  Brazil     1735     1024     59.02     568     374     65.85  
  Romania     782     387     49.49     408     175     42.89  
  Turkey     778     295     37.92     391     184     47.06  
  Spain     2280     600     26.32     559     191     34.17  
  India     3187     655     20.55     2102     489     23.26  
  Canada     1811     341     18.83     1241     255     20.55  
  Italy     2844     274     9.63     1667     195     11.7  
  USA     25050     1927     7.69     18057     1549     8.58  
  Germany     4805     331     6.89     2626     223     8.48  
  United Kingdom     13759     595     4.32     11263     476     4.23  

(Source: Ulrich's)

Emergent countries are much more prominent in this table, since three of the first five positions are occupied by them (Brazil, Turkey and India). It is also worth remarking the case of Spain, which achieves a commendable fourth position and has a number of open access academic journals representing a third of the total of titles with external review or a fourth of the total of journals. These high percentages can be understood because of the origin of publishing houses. Unlike what happens in leading markets (such as United States, United Kingdom, the Netherlands or Germany), the presence of commercial publishers in Spain does not even reach a fourth of the total of titles (Abadal, Rius, 2008). The three other quarters are formed by non-profit publishing houses depending on universities, public research centres, scientific societies and professional associations that fit the philosophy of the movement and have evolved relatively quickly towards this model.

The countries with a consolidated publishing industry, such as the United States, United Kingdom, Germany, etc, would be proportionally well below the abovementioned global average of 13%.

4 Regarding quality

At the beginning of this article we have mentioned open access tries to achieve the free distribution of scientific production, and therefore to change the operating model of the scientific community.

Considering this premise, it might seem that this movement is willing to replace, avoid or eliminate the mechanisms for quality setting already established by scientific production, that is to say, the peer review system which is the base of the scientific communication. But nothing is further from the truth. Open access seeks maximum spread, use and reuse of scientific contents, which implies no interference whatsoever with the quality review systems of scientific publications (either they are peer reviews of journals or the activity of the indexes and the evaluation agencies).

Despite these explanations and declarations of principles, doubts about the competitiveness and external acknowledgement of quality and impact in open access journals still circulate among authors as a mechanism of discredit or undervaluing their effectiveness.

Reality, however, dispels any possible doubts. Free access journals are following traditional quality standards to achieve the highest acknowledgement and prestige. This impression can be corroborated by analyzing the presence of open access journals in the two databases gathering the highest quality titles, those being Scopus (Elsevier) and Web of Science (Thomson-ISI).

Currently, Scopus includes 18,500 journal titles, 1,800 of which follow the open access model (these data come directly form Scopus). These figures represent ten per cent of the total of titles. Web of Science produces similar results: this database consists of 864 open access journals out of 9,870 titles, which means 9% of the total (data in this case come from Ulrich’s).

On the other hand, it must considered that some open access journals have impact factors situating them at the top of their thematic categories, as in PLoS, BioMedCentral, or The New Journal of Physics, published by the Institute of Physics.

Thus, despite they are still young, a large proportion of open access journals are already in the elite of their sector, and besides, they are very well rated, an achievement that took long to most of traditional titles.

5 Regarding economic sustainability

It is not difficult to create a journal; what is actually complicated is to keep it active for many years. Achieving economic sustainability, by establishing solid revenue streams to defray editorial costs, the technological developments of the digital platforms, etc, is currently another fundamental challenge for open access journals.

In the last twenty years, several publishing groups have been created that have consolidated and experimented with several funding sources to ensure the survival and economic sustainability of the journals they publish. We are going to deal with these two questions in the following subsections.

5.1 Publishing groups

With the development of the sector, some publishing groups have appeared and consolidated following the open access model. The study of their structure and organization offers invaluable clues to understand the fundamental elements helping to achieve economic viability. We are providing some short reference to the three main international publishing groups and a Spanish one.

a) BioMed Central (
It is a British group founded in early 2000 and publishing some 220 open access journals in the areas of biology and medicine. It was purchased by Springer, the second scientific publisher in the world, in late 2008.

b) Hindawi Publishing Corporation (
It was founded in 1997 in Cairo as a traditional commercial publisher specialized in mathematics and engineering, but quickly added biomedicine too. This is a particular case of transition from the subscription model to open access, and has been the object of some specific studies (Loy, 2011). It is currently publishing more than 300 journals (about 10% of them with impact factor) and has a rate of accepted articles of around 30-35%. Being located in Egypt makes it more competitive, since the salary costs are also lower.

c) PloS (
It publishes PLoS Biology in 2003 and currently has seven titles that are very well situated in impact indexes. It only accepts 10% of the sent articles.

d) Revistas CSIC (
It is one of the biggest groups of open access journals. It hosts about thirty journals, most of them indexed in Web of Science and Scopus. In very few years, it has evolved from a commercial model to that of open access together with the computerization of publishing processes.

5.2 Funding channels

Publishing open access journals presents two distinctive traits: authors keep their exploitation rights, and, on the other hand, the revenues from subscriptions are replaced by other funding sources. The key question, nonetheless, remains in what are these sources and whether they are viable or not.

In an article by Villarroya et al (2012) a complete bibliographic revision is presented about the business models in open access. This article highlights the importance of analyzing beyond the funding sources and taking into account other economic and funding components as well as the operative and strategic dimensions of the publishing house. In any case, our study specifically focuses in the funding channels for open access journals, based on the analysis of success stories in the sector. The channels are the following:

a) Fees (payment for publishing)

The author has to pay a levy for publishing articles. The cost of publishing an article can range between 600 and 2,500 €, depending on the journal and some characteristics of the article. This amount is practically never paid by the author himself or herself but with the resources from research projects, most of which have specific budgets for publication. In other cases, these publishing fees are directly assumed by the institution the author belongs to. Some experts consider that this is the only means of funding able to challenge and compare to the commercial model. It is frequent in health sciences journals (BioMedCentral or PLoS being two of the better known). It might represent more than 90% of revenues in this kind of journals.

b) External subsidies
In this case, there is a fundamental economic contribution external to the publishing activity. It might come from public administrations, scientific societies or users’ consortia, among others.

b.1) Public funding
Following this model, the costs are directly and entirely assumed by the public administration (university faculties and departments, research centres or other types of public organisms) that funds the publishing activity of the journals. This channel is very much extended in Humanities and Social Sciences. A clear example would be that of Revistas CSIC, which have the economic support of this Spanish research organism.

b.2) Membership fees
Regarding scientific societies publishing in open access, the main source of funding tends to be membership fees.

b.3) Users’ consortia
Those libraries subscribed to journals of a specific scientific discipline together with agencies supporting research fund publishing houses so that they publish journals and distribute them freely to the authors. A particular example is that of the SCOAP3 (Sponsoring Consortium for Open Access in Particle Physics Publishing) project, a consortium of research centres, funding agencies and libraries that propose an economic model to transform all scientific journals to open access in the areas of particle physics. They have already received numerous worldwide supports, especially in the US.

c) Advertising
It is increasingly present in many publications. Nevertheless, the percentage of revenues obtained through this path is mostly low.

d) Institutional subscriptions
It refers to the annual contributions to publishers by universities, research centres, etc, so that, in return, the authors belonging to the paying institution enjoy important discounts to publish their articles: for instance, Hindawi has 25 subscribed institutions providing 2% of its revenues (Loy, 2011).

e) Services sales
This channel refers to the benefits from prints, offprints, etc. In Hindawi, this source of revenues means 9% of the total (Loy, 2011).

After the analysis of editorial groups and their diverse funding channels it might be established that there are already consolidated models that might become references for open access publishing initiatives being created.

6 Conclusions

The revision of the situation shows that open access has overcome its initial break and is already in a consolidation stage. In this respect, we agree with Laakso (2011), who establishes three stages in the evolution of open access journals: the beginnings (1993-99), the innovation (2000-04) and the consolidation (from 2005).

Regarding quantitative aspects, the figures from open access journals prove that the sector has by no means a symbolic presence. Emerging countries are on the rise, providing high proportions of titles following this model.

Regarding quality, the standards of the scientific communication system have been entirely adopted and a good percentage of titles have managed to situate in the elite of journals.

Regarding the sustainability model, it is also established the supremacy of the payment by the author system in biomedicine and experimental sciences and the payment by the public administration in social sciences and humanities. Some examples of consolidated publishers (PloS, Hindawi, Revistas CSIC, etc.) give clear indications to ensure the consolidation and extension of the model.

In this article we have exclusively considered the gold road (that of journals) and we have not analyzed the weight of scientific publications archived in repositories, since they are harder to detect. There are some studies offering figures on both roads such as that from Björk et al (2010), situating in the 20% the number of articles published in 2008 that could be found in open access. This analysis is based on a sample of 1837 journals indicating that 8.5% of the articles can be consulted in the web of the publisher (gold road) and 11.9% can be found online (green road), either in repositories or in the authors websites.

Finally, what is the future perspective? The figures in our study, expanded with previous estimates, consider that 20% of published articles are already in open access. It seems difficult to speculate on the growth rate of this type of publication in subsequent years, although it seems that policies promoted from universities, research centres and funding agencies will contribute to decisively promote this operating model in the scientific community.

7 Bibliography

Abadal, Ernest; Rius Alcaraz, Lluís (2008). "Revistas científicas de las universidades españolas: acciones básicas para aumentar su difusión e impacto". Revista Española de Documentación Científica, vol. 31, iss. 2, pp. 242-262.

Björk, B-C et al. (2010). "Open access to the scientific journal literature: situation 2009". PLoS ONE, vol. 5, iss. 6. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0011273

Harnad, Stevan (2006) "Opening access by overcoming Zeno's paralysis". In: Jacobs, N (ed.). Open access: key strategic, technical and economic aspects. London: Chandos.

Harnad, Stevan (2008). "The postgutenberg open access journal". In: Cope, B.; Phillips, A (eds.).The future of the academic journal. London: Chandos.

Laakso, M., et al. (2011). "The development of open access journal publishing from 1993 to 2009". PLoS ONE, vol. 6, iss. 6. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0020961

Loy, Matthew (2011). Hindawi Publishing Corporation: Growing an Open-Access Contributor-Pays Business Model. Updated 2011. London: Ithaka.

Melero, Remedios (2005). "Acceso abierto a las publicaciones científicas: definición, recursos, copyright e impacto". El profesional de la Información, vol. 14, iss. 4, pp. 255-266.

Melero, Remedios; Abad, Francisca (2008). "Revistas open access: características, modelos económicos y tendencias". BiD: textos universitaris de biblioteconomia i documentació, vol. 20.

Villarroya, Anna; Claudio-González, Melba; Abadal, Ernest; Melero, Remedios (2012). "Modelos de negocio de las editoriales de revistas científicas: implicaciones para el acceso abierto". El profesional de la información, vol. 21, iss. 2, pp. 129-135.


Last updated 16-03-2013
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