Open Access and Demographic Research

Open access has been a hot topic in academic communities recently. In the UK, recent changes in policy by the government and Research Councils have led to concerns that the revenues of publishing companies are being protected at the expense of the publicly-funded science budget. Elsewhere, the quality of some open access journals has been put under question by an experiment reported in Science, where demonstrably nonsensical articles were submitted and accepted to a number of open-access journals. As demographers and academics, we should consider what effect the current seismic changes in the dissemination of research are likely to have on our own activities, and how we should now go about getting our research published.


The Open Access Logo designed by the Public Library of Science, who have been publishing open-access journals for more than a decade.

What is clear is that the traditional system of academic publishing is no longer tenable. The internet has changed the way we communicate and access information, meaning that we need no longer rely on printed media to keep us up to date. The costs now associated with actually disseminating research appear negligible, in the sense that anyone can upload documents to the internet in the blink of an eye, and the per-article cost of maintaining these on the server is presumably very small. Despite all this, journal subscription fees have risen steadily over the last couple of decades, meaning less money for science. Open access offers one way to avoid this problem.

Apart from the monetary argument, there is a ‘pure’ scientific reason to support open access. Wider and faster access to research means better research, and also results in more practitioners being able to use the fruits of academic endeavour. Science is a public pursuit: as Karl Popper observed, it has succeeded because of its ability to sift the good ideas from the bad ones through opening up theories to ‘friendly-competitive’ criticism on the basis of evidence. Open access allows more and more people to contribute to this process, and thus improves the speed and quality of such criticism.

As a result of these factors, over the last decade considerable momentum has gathered behind the open access campaign. However, although funders and institutions are increasingly mandating some form of open access for their researchers’ output, there remains much to be done. Only around half of all research published in 2011 was freely accessible, with this figure being considerably lower for the social sciences. Furthermore, this figure obscures the fact that open access research comes in different forms. So-called ‘Gold’ open access involves publishing in the traditional way, but in a journal that allows everyone to view articles. However, this is where it becomes more complicated. Some ‘pure’ Gold journals allow unconditional access to all articles with no charges. Other ‘hybrid’ gold journals retain the traditional subscription models and keep the majority of their material behind a paywall, but give authors the option of paying ‘Article Processing Charges’ in order to make their particular article available to everyone. These are problematic, as not only does it mean that the majority of past research remains inaccessible, but also that institutions are saddled with additional fees on top of subscriptions, which must be maintained given that both older research and a large proportion of new work still remains behind paywalls. Inevitably, these additional costs will eat into the overall research budget allocated for science (and indeed, represent a waste of public funds).

The other route to open access, commonly called the ‘Green’ path, avoids some of these problems. Green Open Access involves academics publishing as normal in a standard journal, but archiving a pre-print manuscript of their work in a repository. Access to the article is therefore possible over the web via this repository, which is usually associated with a university or funder body. Journals may require that an embargo period be served before the article is available to everyone; additionally, there are also different policies regarding which versions of the paper are allowed to be archived via a repository. Often, the final manuscript after publisher typesetting and editing cannot be archived, but either the post-review or pre-submission author’s draft can. Steve Harnad’s excellent blog on open access gives more specific information on this point, together with much, much more information on the subject that will help ensure you stay on the right side of copyright agreements.

So, what does it mean to us as demographic researchers? In the first instance, it is important to know the policy of your research funder and of your institution. The Sherpa-Juliet website guides you through this former task by providing an international database of funder requirements. Once you have this information, you then need to make sure you submit to a journal that allows compliance with these requirements (for instance, one that has a gold open access option, or that allows archiving of pre-prints). Sherpa-Juliet’s counterpart, Sherpa-Romeo, gives a directory of journals and their positions on these points. According to Romeo, Demography allows self-archiving of author’s post-review manuscripts on a personal website, but places a 12-month embargo on access to copies in open access repositories, for example. For UK based researchers, Sherpa-Fact gives information on whether a given journal complies with the OA mandates of the major research councils.

There is also the problem, highlighted by the Science article at the top of the page, of ‘predatory’ open access publishers who aim to take advantage of the open access movement by setting up journals that seem to have little regard for research quality in order to make money from APCs. Consider the experience of one anthropologist, detailed here. Before submitting to a less-well known open-access journal, this list of potentially predatory publishers is definitely worth checking, particularly if a fee is mentioned.

Of course, it is easy to rail at publishing companies, but we must also consider our own actions. Complying with institutional and funder mandates is the minimum requirement. We should also consider where we want to be in the future, as the current system is sustained by the academics who submit articles to it. As researchers, we should bear in mind the points above about the importance of open access when we submit papers. We are lucky enough to have, in Demographic Research, a good ‘pure’ open access journal which does not charge any publication fees and allows all-comers unrestricted access to articles – we should try and support it. Of course, there is sometimes a trade off to be made between supporting open access and submitting to high impact journals. For those of us at the beginning of our careers in a highly competitive job market, it is perhaps unavoidable that we wish to try and safeguard our futures by submitting to the top journals in the field (which, at present, are generally hybrid journals).  Where this very pressing need prevents us from taking the ‘Golden Road’, the ‘Green Route’ of self-archiving allows us the opportunity to make our research freely available to all.


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