This is a parallel question to Open Access Success Stories? and is something I've been thinking about for a while.

If one reads the linked question, Spark makes the following statements about questionable practices in academic publishing:

  1. They don't pay reviewers for their work.
  2. They overcharge universities for subscriptions.
  3. They prevent public access to publicly funded research.

And the solution to these problems is open access. Spark is not the only person who thinks this way about open access; similar sentiments have been expressed here on SE, and I've also heard from a senior professor in real life that Elsevier is disliked because they are "against open access".

The problem is, to say that open access is a panacea makes little sense from my perspective as a former publisher:

  1. It's not like open access journals pay reviewers for their work either. In fact my experience strongly indicates that it isn't possible to pay reviewers anything more than a pittance unless the journal charges a substantial submission fee (which is distinct from an open access fee, since that is only paid upon acceptance).
  2. You go from overcharging universities for subscription to overcharging authors for submissions. In other words open access just shifts money around.
  3. It's not like open access is unprofitable. Hindawi is one of the most prolific open access publishers (everything they publish is open access), and last I saw, their profit margins of ~50% easily dwarfs that of conventional publishers (~35%) (however this is not an apples-to-apples comparison, because the 35% figure includes book revenue, and the profit margin for those is usually lower than for journals).
  4. The statement that Elsevier is against open access is untrue, and many (most/all?) Elsevier journals allow open access if the authors are willing to pay for it (Elsevier is against piracy, aka. reproducing copyrighted material without paying for it, not open access. Ironically, worded this way, most people are also against piracy).
  5. That leaves just the idea the subscription-based model prevents public access to publicly funded research. If this is genuinely a problem (in the vast majority of cases, the general public are not interested in reading research articles) then the authors can still usually make the papers available legally + for free.

Further, again from my perspective as a former publisher, open access is actively great and the industry would totally not mind if everyone just converted to open access. That's because it's guaranteed revenue. You no longer have to worry about convincing people that your journal is so good they should pay to read it. As long as researchers have research to publish, your journal gets revenue. You might even get to save on marketing costs. Besides, you barely have to do anything that you aren't already doing. In fact the most important reason publishers haven't just converted everything to OA is because many authors are simply unable to pay for OA (especially those from developing countries).

NB: The free-to-publish and free-to-read model, diamond open access, would indeed be a panacea. Problem is this model only works with external funding, so unless society becomes willing to commit millions of dollars every year to subsidize this, it's not realistic. Even if it does happen, it's just another way of shifting money around: we go from article processing charges to a direct subsidy for publishers.

tl; dr: from my point of view, open access just shifts money around. Accordingly, I don't view open access as either good or bad; it's just something that's there. Academics, however, tend to perceive open access as something "good". Why?

  • Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat.
    – eykanal
    Commented Jan 7, 2019 at 21:25

2 Answers 2


I think the premise of your question is false. I don't think anyone views open-access publishing as a panacea.

I think authors dislike the subscription funding model because the fundamental goal of publishing is to get people to read their work and paywalls undermine this goal. Also authors lose control of their own work by handing over copyright to the publisher.

The other thing academics dislike about publishers is that they overcharge for their services; they are making too much profit for what they actually provide. That is just a question of how much they charge relative to their actual costs. It doesn't matter who (authors or readers) is actually paying.

I don't think most academics believe that reviewers should necessarily be paid. It's just galling when you volunteer your time as a reviewer while the publisher makes billions of dollars of profits. I think most academics would happily volunteer for a non-profit publisher.

One more point: Giving authors the option of paying to make their article open-access (e.g., gold open access) is a fantastic scam. The publisher gets the money from the authors (something like US$5000), but doesn't need to reduce the subscription price of the journal! Publishers sell libraries subscription packages, rather than charging per article. As long as a large enough fraction of the publisher's offerings are paywalled, they can demand an expensive subscription to the package. The publisher then disingenuously claims that they "support open access".

  • I think your answer is symptomatic of the issue though. If the aim is to get people to read their work, then publishing OA is unimportant; one needs to do publicity & marketing work. If the amount of money publishers make is what matters, then one should publish in subscription journals because the profit margin there is lower. Finally, in your last sentence you referred to "non-profit open-access publisher", where again the word 'open access' is there even though whether the publisher is OA is irrelevant: why not just say 'non-profit publisher'?
    – Allure
    Commented Jan 7, 2019 at 3:01
  • 3
    @Allure I don’t understand your comment. OA helps people read your work. Of course you also need “publicity and marketing”, but it doesn’t need to be one or the other. You should be able to have both.
    – Thomas
    Commented Jan 7, 2019 at 3:07
  • There's little evidence that OA leads to a larger readership however. If you really want a larger readership, you can do it more effectively for the same cost: publish in a subscription journal, make your article available for free on your personal website, and then hire a publicist with your APC.
    – Allure
    Commented Jan 7, 2019 at 3:10
  • 5
    (1) Many publishers won’t let you have an open-access (arxiv, personal website) version of your article that they published. (2) The “publicity” of publishing in a top journal is very different from what you get by hiring a publicist.
    – Thomas
    Commented Jan 7, 2019 at 3:19
  • 2
    Are you sure about (1)? My understanding is that many, if not most, publishers will let you self-archive (this is the correct technical term; putting your paper on arXiv / personal website is not open access). Relevant policies from Elsevier (elsevier.com/about/policies/sharing), Springer (springerpub.com/journal-article-sharing-policies), and Wiley (authorservices.wiley.com/author-resources/Journal-Authors/…).
    – Allure
    Commented Jan 7, 2019 at 3:42

You are confusing "open access" with "author pay". They are not the same at all. Every paper I write is open access (they are on arxiv.org, on my personal website, in my university's open repository, or all three). None of my papers go to author-pay journals.

  • If so, then open access seems unrelated to publishers: for example this question is open access, and complaints such as publishers don't pay reviewers are unrelated to open access (?)
    – Allure
    Commented Jan 7, 2019 at 5:27
  • David, I think @Allure makes a valid point that the cost of publishing does need to be met somehow and open access rules out the subscription business model. However, that does not necessarily mean authors pay. It would be helpful to explain how the journals you use are funded.
    – Thomas
    Commented Jan 7, 2019 at 18:41

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