On March 23, 2017, the New York Times reported on a story originally published in Nature about a sting operation against predatory open access (OA) publishers. The sting was organized by a researcher whose assumed name translated to “Dr. Fraud.”

Many blog posts have been written and will be written about the damage caused by predatory publishers to publishing and scientific credibility. One thing not frequently commented upon is the negative impact of such behaviors on the use of OA content in corporations.

Copyright Clearance Center (CCC) works very closely with information managers and librarians in corporations, helping them find, manage, and use information. We have learned that for many of our research-intensive customers, there is often a high degree of suspicion around the use of OA content. OA—which I broadly define as the ability to access online articles and publications outside the pay wall—is free at point of access, and accessing content for free always sounds attractive. Yet all OA content is not the same, and our customers are leery. Economics inevitably affect quality, and OA—like any content (including subscription content)—varies in terms of quality and accuracy. Still, fear of bad science should not prevent users from using OA content. That is why it is crucial to know how to separate the best of OA from the worst, and to know when it makes sense to pay for the information you need.

 Fear of bad science should not prevent users from using OA content.

The world of OA is expanding and there are countless variations of OA. But, people tend to use a few main terms when talking about OA. To best understand what advantages can be gained from the use of OA content, here is a mini primer in four areas of OA:

Gold Road Open Access

Authors pay a fee to the publisher to make their articles freely available on publication. The fee is often paid out of grant funds from a funding agency, a governmental agency, or from institutional budgets. The publishers use the OA fees to manage peer review and maintain the official, final “version of record.” In the event of post-publication changes to the article, such as retractions and corrections, a respectable OA publisher will update the version of record in accordance with ethical standards. Yet all gold road is not the same, as you’ll see below.

Hybrid journals

These are traditional journals which, in addition to publishing articles on a subscription basis, also offer a gold road OA option for those authors who wish to make their articles freely available. The model is simple: An author pays a fee to a publisher to make the article OA. Every article accepted for publication by a hybrid journal undergoes the same, rigorous peer review process. After the full editorial process is complete, the author may decide to publish the article as open access and pay the associated fee.

Pure Gold Road Open Access Journals

An example of this is PLOS One, or the journals published by Springer’s BioMed Central, Hindawi, and, increasingly, the new OA journals created by traditional subscription publishers (who are both creating new journals and “flipping” some traditional subscription journals to pure gold road). These journals don’t generate any revenue from subscriptions; all of it comes from authors paying OA fees. Pure gold road journals usually subject articles to what some call publishers call “peer review lite,” a lighter, less costly editorial process designed to ensure that the science is high quality, without making other evaluations — such as novelty or fit within the scope of the journal – which are especially important to subscription journals bound by page budgets.

Green Road Open Access

Green road refers to an article that has been placed in an open repository where it is freely available. Typically, the green road version of an article is not the final version of record. Instead, it is the version of the article originally accepted by the publisher prior to formatting, copyediting, and other finishing services. There is generally no fee for the posting, so ultimately no sustainable business model. As a result, the costs of publishing under green road are essentially underwritten by the subscribers to the official version of the journal, and the version of record is maintained on the publisher’s website behind a paywall.

Using green road content in repositories

Where articles are stored is often as important as where they are published. Green road repositories may be, in the best cases, maintained by organizations with specific funding, such as the US National Institutes of Health (NIH), which maintains the PubMed Central repository, or by universities. While PubMed Central may host the fully published gold road articles of record, NIH grantees who do not publish gold road are required to deposit the green road version of their articles.

This all sounds trustworthy enough, but with certain green road resources there is still some risk. A green road article may lack final copy edits, for example, which means some fundamental but easy-to-miss error could be present, like a misplaced decimal point on dosage. You also cannot be sure of what you’re getting in all open repositories; after all, unlike with a publisher’s version of record on its website, there is often no financial incentive to keep the quality and accuracy of the content uniformly high. Thus, it may be hard to determine if the version is the accepted version (post-peer review, as it is meant to be), as opposed to an earlier draft.

Or, it may not reflect changes to the article post-publication, such as corrections or retractions. The bottom line: With green road, you might be getting useful content, and it might be the same or like the final peer reviewed versions. But you cannot always be sure that what you are getting is the most accurate, up-to-date information available. Caveat emptor.

Author: Roy Kaufman

Roy Kaufman is Managing Director of both Business Development and Government Relations for CCC. He is a member of, among other things, the Bar of the State of New York, the Author’s Guild, and the editorial board of UKSG Insights. Kaufman also advises the US Government on international trade matters through membership in International Trade Advisory Committee (ITAC) 13 – Intellectual Property and the Library of Congress’s Copyright Public Modernization Committee. He serves on the Executive Committee of the of the United States Intellectual Property Alliance (USIPA) Board. He was the founding corporate Secretary of CrossRef, and formerly chaired its legal working group. He is a Chef in the Scholarly Kitchen and has written and lectured extensively on the subjects of copyright, licensing, open access, artificial intelligence, metadata, text/data mining, new media, artists’ rights, and art law. Kaufman is Editor-in-Chief of "Art Law Handbook: From Antiquities to the Internet" and author of two books on publishing contract law. He is a graduate of Brandeis University and Columbia Law School.
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