The Pros and Cons of Open Access Publishing

Peer Reviewed

In a recent paper outlining the benefits and obstacles to open access publishing, Charlotte J. Haug, MD, PhD, concluded that while the goal of open access to research articles is supported by scientists and the public, elimination of subscription-based models without having systems in place to ensure independently vetted, high quality content may lead to serious unintended consequences for the scientific literature. The paper was published in the March 21 issue of The New England Journal of Medicine.

Man smashing literature thru tablet to place content online. The movement toward open access publishing is underway. Photo Source: Haug encouraged SpineUniverse readers to “Please read the whole paper with an open mind.” She noted that open access publishing is a complex issue that “needs nuances and reflection.” Dr. Haug is a Senior Research Scientist at SINTEF Digital, International Correspondent for The New England Journal of Medicine, and Adjunct Affiliate at Stanford Health Policy.

The Benefits of Open Access Publishing

“I personally think open access publishing and journals are the future,” said SpineUniverse board member Jeffrey C. Wang, MD. “The standard model of paper publishing, with printed journals, advertisements that garner revenue for the journal, and subscription fees are being replaced by more modern versions with new models of revenue.”

“There are a number of reasons for this transition,” said Dr. Wang, who is President of the North American Spine Society. “One, is simply to save on the use of paper. More and more physicians and the general public, are moving away from print and to online access via their phones or computers. Saving trees is not only environmentally responsible, but online access is now how we prefer to receive our information.”

“Other reasons include the ability to access these articles quickly, from anywhere, and not having to wait for the journal to be printed or mailed after an article is accepted,” Dr. Wang said. “Open access also allows for greater dissemination of the information more quickly and more easily. This also allows a better, faster, and more comprehensive search for articles, and when writing a paper or researching a topic, having immediate access to the article, rather than going to a library or office to physically find the article.”

“There are so many benefits to open access publishing that the only thing holding it back right now, is our tradition and familiarity with the standard ways of doing things,” Dr. Wang told SpineUniverse. “But, in my opinion, this is the future.”

Are Open Access Publications Trustworthy?

“The ease at which open access journals can proliferate, allow for ‘predator’ journals to be created,” Dr. Wang noted. “It is so easy to create an online open access journal, that many new journals are being created, many of which have less oversight than traditional journal publications.”

“We have seen examples of online open access journals being scrutinized, and we find that there is a very poor or non-blinded review process, allowing inferior science to become easily published,” Dr. Wang continued. “Unfortunately, these journals have given a bit of a ‘black-eye’ to the online journal environment. We need to critically evaluate all of the journals, in order to assure that they have an appropriate, rigorous, academic review process and oversight, with appropriate disclosures in place.”

Is Plan S Viable in the United States?

In September 2018, Science Europe—an association of European research and funding organizations—launched European Plan S, under which all researchers who received public grants provided by national and European research councils and funding bodies are required to publish their research in open access journals or platforms.1,2

“It is in the best interest of science to have a variety of ways to publish results, at least for now,” Dr. Haug told SpineUniverse. “It is hard to understand the rush to enforce one particular business model, such as Plan S, without careful testing for possible negative effects.”

Plan S does not allow for flexibility in publishing in hybrid journals that are subscription-based and allow authors to publish individual articles under an open access license, or in subscription-based journals that provide free access to research articles, such as The New England Journal of Medicine, Dr. Haug noted.

“Many scientists want their work to be vetted and endorsed by third parties with a reputation for quality and independence; such an endorsement comes from many sources, including long-established journals,” Dr. Haug wrote.

The best approach to transitioning to open access publishing is unclear. What is clear is that this movement is currently underway.

“I believe that open access is the future of scientific literature, and we will see most, if not all journals, moving to this platform,” concluded Dr. Wang.


Dr. Haug is the international correspondent for the New England Journal of Medicine.

Dr. Wang disclosed the following relationships:
Royalties: Biomet, Seaspine, Amedica, Synthes
Investments/Options: Bone Biologics, Pearldiver, Electrocore, Surgitech
Board of Directors: Past President Cervical Spine Research Society; President Society for Brain Mapping and Therapeutics; President North American Spine Society; AO Foundation Board
Fellowship Funding: AO Foundation
Editorial Boards: Spine, Journal of the American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons (JAAOS), The Spine Journal, Clinical Spine Surgery, Global Spine Journal

Updated on: 07/22/19
Continue Reading
The Future of Scientific Publications: The Effects of Open Access, Social Media, and Altmetrics
Charlotte J. Haug, MD, PhD
Senior Research Scientist
SINTEF Digital
Jeffrey C. Wang, MD
Professor, Orthopaedic Surgery and Neurosurgery
Keck School of Medicine
University of Southern California

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