Traditional Publishing Model

The financials of scientific authorship differ from those of typical book and magazine publishing. In the latter, authors of book and articles are paid for their work by the publishing house, which generates income through sales of physical media. In the digital age, many online publishers generate their revenue from readers using a subscription model.

One big difference, of course, between this and academic publication is that academics don’t get paid to publish; rather, they are paid a salary by their institution of employment. But the goal of publishing in an academic journal was never to get rich with a ‘best-selling article’: it was to disseminate your research findings among your peers, at the same time as you read theirs.

That being said, journal publishing was never free, because of administrative and distribution costs. Most used to operate on a subscription model, similar to newspapers and magazines: subscribers pay annual or monthly fees, to cover those costs, and authors need to pay nothing or nearly nothing to publish there. Many still do.

However, this creates an information gap. If you haven’t paid a given journal’s subscription fees, you can’t read the work of your peers published in it. You might miss key insights in your field, keeping you scratching your head, searching for the conceptual or technological breakthrough you need. This gap is reduced somewhat by institutional memberships, whereby your academic institution of employment subscribes to the journal (or more often thousands of journals in the same package, though journal databases like ScienceDirect or Ovid), but this method still suffers from two disadvantages:

  • Your access is limited by your institution, which might have gaps in its coverage for financial reasons or due to contracts with distributors.
  • Non-academics, academics in developing countries, and others may not be able to read your work due to the high cost of entry, even though they could benefit from or add insight to the research.

Open-access Publishing Models

Enter open-access publishing. The guiding principle of open access is to remove all restrictions on a reader gaining access to published works. In practice, it takes many forms, with specific variations depending not only on access rights but also on copyright.

In the traditional publishing model, authors often assign copyright to the publishing entity. What that means is, once published, the author is not legally permitted to share their own paper. For a reader to read the paper, they need to have access to the journal: this could be through physical media, such as through a library or through a personal subscription, but most researchers these days have a university or institutional subscription to thousands of journals through online databases.

Open-access circumvents the need for a subscription. However, the specific usage rights an author retains or gives up–such as whether they can publish it on their personal website–depends on the publishing journal’s open-access system. Complicating the matter is that many journals offer different tiers of open-access. A journal may publish the article for a lower fee, but limit the readership to subscribers only for the first 1-2 years, or limit the number of copies an author is allowed to distribute personally. A good rule of thumb is, the publication option with the “most-open” access has the highest fee for the author.

When deciding to publish open-access, read the fine print in the journal’s fee descriptions and terms and conditions. To help you, here are some common terms used in the industry, in order of most-restricted to least-restricted access, along with simple definitions:

  • ‘Green’ open access: Self-publish and store in depository.
  • ‘Gold’ open access: Publishing through publisher so that is immediately available
  • Gratis open access: Online access free of charge
  • Libre open access: Online access free of charge plus various additional usage rights

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