The Ethics of Open Access Publishing: A Review

Publication of research has been a cornerstone in the academic world since the 17th century when the first academic journal was published. Since then the process has evolved immensely where thousands of journals currently exist, each with specific set of rules for researchers/writers, and sophisticated ranking systems. The publication of research allows for appraisal, reflection and replication of studies by academics, which enhances the quality of generalizable information and the theories generated.

In recent years, the scientific world has been encouraging open access publishing of research in contrast to the long-standing subscription based publishing. In an article by Michael Parker, from the Ethox Centre of University of Oxford, he reviews the ethics for and against open access publishing particularly in relation to publishing of ethics.

In the argument for open access publishing, the author explained that communicating research widely would involve prompt feedback from the public and academicians and lessen the risk of research duplication. It allows for better public participation and scrutiny of contemporary bioethical debates and policies. This affects positively the government’s decision making in regards to  bioethics.

In the domain of publicly sponsored research, open access publishing seems the moral and the correct way to permit funders (in this case the public) the review and comment on what they paid for. In a way, public involvement inadvertently increase the social value of research, which is one of the requirements of ethical research. The argument is also relevant in the context of academicians conducting collaborative research in low-income countries, where there is an obligation to publish and share the results with their counterparts in such countries.

Another point raised was the alleged monopoly of academic journal publishers to the publicly funded work of academicians since these editors apply copyrights to such research, decide who publishes in their journals and who can access such knowledge via subscriptions. Some commentators believe this is, to some extent, exploitative especially, since these editors are financially awarded.

The last argument proposed was that open access publishing does not comply as strictly as subscription-based publishing to publication formats and defined field classification. Consequently, ‘open access initiatives have the potential to lead to the development of new, creative and more productive communities of publishing practice and the generation of new forms of understanding and research collaboration’.

Arguments against open access publishing include, the claim that increased and better quality research will ensue is not backed by evidence. The model may increase the risks for unfair authorship attribution particularly in low-income settings and collaborative research.

In addition, the ‘Gold Model’ has been embraced by some journals where authors or their institutions subscribe to online publishing. The arguments, therefore, still stand in regards to paying money for accessing publicly funded research and the issue of publishers acquiring monetary gains for researchers’ publicly sponsored labor. To combat that, some commentators proposed more transparent policies by publishers on actual costs of peer review and online publication and the lowering of subscription fees. The Golden Rule may also lead to conservative publishing formats in an attempt to acquire higher impact journals and compliance to the requirements of research auditing bodies. In addition, it will widen the gap between the have and have not academic institutions as well a independent and institution affiliated researchers.

The online publishing access has been transferred to a form of the traditional subscription based model by the Golden Rule. In a way, the Golden Rule ensures the validity and science of  the studies published. However,  it fails to answer the ethical debates raised in subscription based publishing. I was hoping the author would propose the ideal open access model that can ensure the high quality of research as well as the other advantages proposed by the article such as better public accessibility. He also failed to provide the ethical arguments against open access publishing. His arguments were based on Golden Rule, which, as I mentioned, is another form of subscription model.

To read the article, follow the link ‘The Ethics of Open Access Publishing



Parker, M. (2013). The ethics of open access publishing. BMC Medical Ethics,14(1), 16.

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