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Open Access vs. Traditional Journals: Pros and Cons


As you prepare your research results for publication, you will need to decide which journal to target. When considering the options, you should understand the differences between traditional academic journals and open access journals. These differences can affect the speed of the peer-review process, the time from acceptance to publication, the cost of publication, whether interested parties will have access to your published article, and how the prestige of the journal impacts perceptions of your work.

How do traditional journals work?

Launched in 1665, the Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society claims to be the world's oldest scientific journal. In 1752, they adopted new procedures to improve the quality of published work, requiring papers to be selected by a 21-person committee. During the 1830s, in response to increased competition from other journals, the Royal Society introduced a system of expert peer review to attract the best papers. Peer review is still considered the standard for reputable journals, and helps ensure the quality of published research articles.

Traditional journals have been around for a long time, and the promise of high-quality research papers is part of their appeal. These traditional journals are primarily funded by subscriptions and advertisements. Readers have access because they have a personal subscription or because they are affiliated with an institution that has an institutional subscription.

While subscribers may still receive physical copies of a journal in the mail, the internet is now the primary way that people access journal articles.

The internet changed everything

The internet has profoundly changed how research is conducted and accessed, with many resources such as databases and information repositories (e.g. PubMed, scanned versions of old documents) now freely available to anyone in the world with internet access. This has broadened the population of researchers, influenced the type of research conducted, and changed how research is published.

For their subscribers, most traditional journals have made recent editions available online with searchable text, and have scanned in older articles with varying degrees of image quality. Some of the most prestigious journals, which pride themselves on publishing the most ground-breaking work, make some articles available online before the full journal edition is released. The rationale is that the work is so important, that others working in the same or related fields should take the results into consideration immediately. But if rapid publication of research results is so important—or at least beneficial—why bother with the antiquated system of bundling articles into physical journals?

This question is part of what led to the advent of open access (OA) journals.

How do open access journals work?

Open access journals publish articles online only, and make the articles freely available to anyone with internet access. While much can go wrong with material that is published online, two major powerhouses helped launch and legitimize this approach. BioMed Central (BMC) was founded by a traditional for-profit publishing house, and introduced Genome Biology as an open access journal in 2000. This was followed by BMC Biology in 2003, and BMC Medicine in 2003, which are both well-respected open access journals. There are now a plethora of BMC titles, covering subspecialties in biology and medicine, as well as the physical sciences, engineering, psychology, and the social sciences.

The nonprofit Public Library of Science (PLoS) launched PLoS Biology as an open access journal in 2003, and PLoS Medicine in 2004. These are both highly regarded journals. PLoS now publishes a total of seven journals in the fields of medicine and biology.

To maintain high standards, these open access journals have continued the tradition of peer review.

What are the pros and cons?


Open access journals were built for speed. By making quality research papers freely available as quickly as possible to everyone with internet access, they aim to accelerate the pace of discovery. This speed starts with the review process. While journals are reluctant to make promises about the speed of the review process—since qualified reviewers are busy people and meaningful reviews take time—open access journals tend to have faster turn-around times than traditional journals.

Once an article is accepted by a reputable journal—open access or traditional—it will undergo copyediting and be formatted in the style of the journal. When the final version is ready, an open access journal will immediately make it available online, while a traditional journal will bundle it with other articles to produce an issue. It's not unusual for this process to take a few months, and in some fields can take over a year if the journal has a large backlog of accepted papers. These delays slow the pace of discovery, and are problematic for researchers applying for jobs, tenure and promotion, or grants.


Researchers are paid partially in prestige. Having a publication in a top-tier journal gives you instant credibility, and provides a major advantage when applying for jobs, tenure and promotion, or grants. Some fields (e.g. biology and medicine) have many well-respected open access journals, while other fields have few established options. Publishing in a relatively new journal is always risky, especially for researchers early in their careers. In contrast, many traditional journals have been around for decades, so their reputation is well established.


A research paper can only have an impact on future research if people can read it. For a top-tier journal in the sciences, a personal subscription might cost US $50 to $350 per year, an institutional subscription for a small college might cost US $2,000 per year, and an institutional subscription for a large university might cost US $25,000 per year. There were 42,500 scientific journals published in 2018. Thus, a large university might pay US $10 million for journal access, and still not have access to all the articles its researchers want to read.

The situation seems even more galling when your realize that much of the research being published is supported by government grants, charitable organizations, and the same institutions that are paying high premiums for journal access. Some traditional journals have addressed this cost issue by making articles freely available after a certain period of time (often a year). This helps relieve financial pressure for individuals and institutions that don't always need immediate access (e.g. beginning students, community colleges), but it's an imperfect solution. In order for publicly-funded research to provide the maximum public good, it must be available to everyone who can advance it, apply it, or learn from it.

Furthermore, as researchers progress further into their careers, they are increasingly evaluated by how often their work has been cited by other researchers. For reputable journals, studies have shown that open access articles are cited more frequently than similar subscription-only articles.


Traditional journals cover most of the costs associated with publication by charging for subscriptions and advertisements. For both traditional and open access journals, authors may need to pay a small fee to have their articles considered for publication. Upon acceptance, traditional journals may also require authors to pay an additional fee per page (perhaps US $100-$250) and/or per color page (perhaps US $150-$1000).

Open access journals do not make money from subscriptions, so they typically charge higher fees after acceptance. The article processing charge (APC) for PLoS Biology is US $3,000 per article, for BMC Evolutionary Biology is US $2,290 per article, and for Frontiers in Computer Science is US $1,150 per article. As open access publishing becomes more common, institutions and grant agencies are providing funds specifically for open access publication fees. The goal is to make the research more accessible, and to allow institutions to gradually reduce what they spend on journal subscriptions.

Traditional journals understand the appeal of open access journal articles, and also understand the prestige of publishing in established journals. Therefore, many traditional journals offer a "hybrid" option, where authors can pay an article processing charge to make their article open access, while also getting the prestige of a well-established journal.

Is there a middle road?

The long-term benefits of open access publishing seem obvious for the research community. However, individual researchers may struggle with the high article processing fees, and may need the prestige of a traditional journal for their desired career path.

An option that can provide the benefits of both worlds is to publish in a traditional journal, but provide a version of the article on your own website or through an open-access repository (such as a university repository or PubMed Central for biomedical and life sciences). Major funding agencies including the U.S. National Institutes of Health are now requiring grant recipients to do this, and a growing number of universities are requiring it.

Different journals place different restrictions on this type of archiving, but the majority have been forced to allow it. Some journals allow the author's pre-print version to be posted online with open access, while others allow the final version to be posted after an embargo period (often 1 year). Articles that are archived are cited more often than similar articles that are not, so taking a few extra steps can ensure that your hard work has maximum visibility.

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