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There’s been a whirlwind of opinions and new stories surrounding open access articles (those not behind a paywall) in the last number of years.  Everything from Aaron Swartz’s “liberating” articles from JSTOR to Tim Gowers abstaining from any involvement with mega-published Elsevier.  I don’t necessarily disagree with either of these individuals.

Even granting agencies, like the NIH, or Wellcome Trust, require articles funded with NIH grants to be published Open Access so that taxpayer-funded research is available to all.  So far, there’s no similar requirement for NSERC grant-holders.

Here’s how things work: in the ‘traditional” system, some journals have page charges, where authors contribute per printed page.  This is more typical of society-published journals (e.g., the American Ornithologists Union’s Auk charges $100/page).  Journals published by large publishing houses (e.g., Wiley, Elsevier) often don’t have page charges.  Where these journals get their money is from library subscription fees (which can be into the 5- or 6-figure range for a “bundle” of journal titles).

There are also some journals that are exclusively open access – the PLoS titles are the best-known example.

In the “open access” system, journals levy a publishing fee up front, and thereafter the article is freely available to anyone, anywhere, in perpetuity.  This sounds good in theory, but like any plan that looks good on paper, there are some hiccups in practice.

The push for academics to publish articles open access has meant a proliferation of fake open access journals (a list of which is lovingly curated by Jeffrey Beale at Scholarly Open Access).  These journals often masquerade as legitimate journals, have fake editorial boards, and aren’t peer reviewed.  But they do take the “article processing fee”.

My other issue, and this is the more significant in my mind, is that the open access model downloads the publishing costs from the institution to the individual.  Here’s a quick summary of the cost of publishing an article as “open access”:

Title Open Access Price
PNAS $1000
Proceedings of the Royal Society B $2380
PLoS One $1350
Ecology $1250 (members)
$1500 (non-members)
Journal of Animal Ecology $1500 (members)
$3000 (non-members)
Marine Ecology Progress Series $1000
Environmental Pollution $3000
Average $1650-1900


A typical NSERC Discovery grant in Ecology/Evolution is roughly $30,000/year.  A reasonably productive ecologist and their students might publish, for example, 8-10 papers/year (though your mileage may vary. See in store for details).  That’s over $13,000 in open access fees each year, or about 43% of the average Discovery Grant.

What are the alternatives?  Unlike physics/maths, there’s no arXiv for ecology.  But universities are increasingly creating their own repositories for pre-print articles (i.e., the same text, just not with all the journals’ formatting and style).  And many academics post their PDFs freely on their websites.  Additionally, in Canada at least, academics need not assign copyright to the publisher, and can post articles under the “fair dealing” aspect of copyright legislation.

And, with the increased globalization and interconnectedness of academics, if your university doesn’t subscribe to the Central Ontario Journal of Applied and Theoretical Ecology: Series B*, chances are you know someone at a university who does, and they can e-mail you the article (that is, if you don’t request it via inter-library loan from your own institution).

Publishing an article as open access is an altruistic behaviour (though there’s some evidence that these papers may get a few more citations).  Until research grants contain an explicit allocation for open access publishing that’s commensurate with the fees and expected output, feel free to e-mail me for a PDF of any one of my papers.

*Not an actual journal. But if anyone wants to start it, I’d gladly change the name to Central Labrador Journal of Applied and Theoretical Ecology: Series B.