But critics of this business model often sidestep the reality that many closed access journals charge processing fees as well. In fact, the entire publication structure of scholarly publishing would seem alien to those who work within the non-academic publishing world. Rather than paying the writer of the composition, he or she is often charged upward of a few thousand dollars to publish in the journal. The journals also don't pay the peer reviewers who first read and then provide significant editorial feedback in order to strengthen a manuscript. These peer reviewers are often made up of experts within the field of the paper's topic; many academics who publish are also called upon to read as a reviewer. "You devote your time to reviewing someone else's article because you want them to spend the same time on your articles," explained Fred Dylla, executive director at the American Institute of Physics, a scientific society that publishes several journals. Though the publishers say they bear the cost of managing the editorial process (polishing the final manuscript, formatting it for publication, and generating all the tables, charts, and graphics), these are all costs that are carried by any non-academic publisher--newspaper, magazine, or book--which also pays both the writers and editors of its products.
As for the accusations of a conflict of interest, this question was put toward Kristen Ratan, the chief product officer of the Public Library of Science, or PLoS, as it's commonly referred to. PLoS is a nonprofit publishing project that launched one of the earliest experiments in open access when it produced its first journal, PLoS Biology, in 2003. Formed by several scientists, PLoS today publishes seven journals, each of which has amassed significant prestige and impact within its respective field. Over a two-week period, Ratan said, PLoS will see up to 1.2 million article page views across all its journals and its impact factor--the average number of citations per article, one of the key indicators of a journal's prestige--is on par with most well-regarded closed access journals.
Ratan said the merit of an article submitted to PLoS is determined by those who have no financial interest in the publication. "I think it's a problem that PLoS has been very good at solving by engaging academic editors and peer reviewers to be the mechanisms determining what gets published, as opposed to having internal staff making those decisions," she explained. "So that removes the conflict of interest." Some have suggested that PLoS and other open-access journal publishers should charge the researcher per round of editorial review, thereby removing some of the financial incentive to accept an article (since some revenue would then be extracted even if the piece is ultimately rejected). But Ratan asserted that "peer review is only one aspect of the cost factor of publishing," and so charging for the peer review wouldn't adequately address this issue.
Asked whether she thinks open access has reached a tipping point that will soon make it a major player in the industry, Ratan pointed to the rapid increase in articles published in PLoS over the last few years--it published 84 percent more articles in 2011 than in 2010. But what's even more indicative of such a shift, she said, is how closed access journals have reacted to their open access counterparts. "What I've noticed is that publishers have responded by in some cases launching open access publications themselves. Some of the ones that have historically been closed are now experimenting in open access." Indeed, nearly every society publisher interviewed has either published an open-access journal or plans to in the near future (that includes both Elsevier and Wiley).
When an established journal converts to open access, it addresses the prestige problem that has hindered the model for years. A researcher has an incentive to always first submit his paper to a journal with the highest impact, not just because it will therefore be seen by more of his colleagues and have a larger resonance, but also because his trajectory in the tenure track partly depends on it. A brand new open access journal has no proven track record, so it can have difficulty attracting serious, groundbreaking research.