The covert censorship of Gold Open Access

Helen Kara

Helen Kara

by Dr Helen Kara, author of Research and Evaluation for busy practitioners

Helen Kara has been an independent social researcher and writer since 1999, and is also Associate Research Fellow at the Third Sector Research Centre, Birmingham University. Her background is in social care and the third sector, and she works with third sector organisations and social care and health partnerships.  Here she writes about the Open Access to journal articles debate which has been growing over the last few years.

I support the principle of Open Access, i.e. that reports of research funded with public money should be available for any taxpayer to read. But I am worried that the planned implementation of this in the UK may lead to unintended censorship.

For those who may not be fully up to date with the progress of the Open Access movement in the UK, let me recap briefly. A group chaired by Professor Dame Janet Finch, of Manchester University, was asked to make recommendations on how access could be broadened.  The Finch Group reported in June of this year, recommending that the UK work towards ‘gold’ Open Access, where authors rather than readers pay for publication. In mid-July the Government accepted the Group’s recommendations, and is now working on their implementation.

People often conflate censorship with redaction, where parts of a publication are blacked out or removed. This is one overt form of censorship, but there are also covert forms, which are more insidious because they’re less obvious.  I believe that Gold Open Access will lead to at least three different forms of covert censorship.

Gold Open Access will save institutions money because they won’t have to pay for expensive journal subscriptions.  However, in these days of cuts and squeezes, there are no guarantees that money saved will be used to cover the costs of staff who want to publish their research.  The existing cuts and squeezes are already causing some forms of censorship.  That could become much more widespread because, as a result of Gold Open Access, there is likely to be fierce competition for publication funds within academic institutions.  This is the first form of covert censorship, because any academic who loses such a competition will be unable to publish, regardless of the merit of their work.

Under the Gold Open Access approach, the cost of publishing an article is expected to be around £1,500, which is a significant sum even for institutions with sizeable research budgets.  And it is completely prohibitive for most individuals.  Therefore the retired academic, the unemployed academic, the postgraduate student, the practitioner-researcher, the independent researcher, will all be unable to publish their work in academic journals – which is a second form of covert censorship.

Researchers from outside academia can bring valuable perspectives.  Of course I would say that – I’m an independent researcher – but the academics who choose to work with me seem to agree.  So do journal editors, as it appears that around one in three authors of articles in academic journals are retired, unemployed, students, practitioner-researchers or independent researchers.  Therefore the move to Gold Open Access could also see some journals disappearing, as their submissions dry up from both academic and non-academic sources.  And that’s a third form of covert censorship.

I’m sure censorship was not at all what the Finch Group intended.  And let me restate my own support for the principle of Open Access.  But even the UK Open Access Implementation Group has acknowledged that the transition to Open Access will not be straightforward.  I think care must be taken to make access truly open, for writers, editors and publishers, as well as for readers.

5 Responses to “The covert censorship of Gold Open Access”

  1. 1 Joe Kraus October 17, 2012 at 3:58 pm

    The author page charge is one of the many funding models for Open Access journals. Most (about 70%) OA journals listed in the DOAJ do not have author-side fees. (Stat comes from Peter Suber.) Thus, there are many, many good scholarly journals that do not have author-side page charges (APCs.) Some OA journals and publishers that do have APCs will waive the charges for authors who are not funded by an institution, or from the developing world. I know that PLOS has this policy. I am sure other OA publishers will waive the fees as well.

  2. 2 Helen Kara October 22, 2012 at 8:07 pm

    Joe, thanks for your comment; I understand that’s the situation with existing open access journals worldwide. Peter Suber has a worldwide view, whereas I’m writing about the situation in the UK. This may seem idiosyncratic in a discussion of open access via the Internet, but the Finch Group and the UK Government are creating a specific situation for writers and academics within these islands. The recommendations of the Finch Group are focused on APCs (which they define as Article Processing Charges), e.g. through recommendation 1: “a clear policy direction should be set towards support for publication in open access or hybrid journals, funded by APCs, as the main vehicle for the publication of research, especially when it is publicly funded.” And the UK Government have accepted this, saying “Support for publicly funded research institutions will be needed to pay the cost of APCs this funding will will come out of existing research funds.” [sic] This leaves me unconvinced that the worldwide situation you describe will be maintained locally in the UK’s drive towards increased open access – although, as a staunch supporter of the principles of open access, I truly hope that your view proves more accurate than mine.

  3. 3 Ross Mounce (@rmounce) November 3, 2012 at 2:26 pm

    FYI a recent study has shown the average price of Gold OA (where a fee is charged, as previously mentioned most Gold OA journals are ‘free’ to publish-in, author-side) is just $906 (USD).

    Solomon DJ, Björk BC. A study of open access journals using article processing charges. J Am Soc Inf Sci Tec. 2012;63(8):1485-1495. Available from:

    The Finch report thus exaggerated the likely costs of Gold OA in my opinion – authors must simply be savvy and choose appropriate, high-quality, low cost Gold OA journals in their field. I can’t speak for all fields and disciplines but in mine Acta Palaeontologia Polonica is both highly-respected, free-to-publish in and full CC-BY immediate Gold OA

    Therefore I really don’t see Gold OA as a problem as long as researchers are incentivised to take a cost-savvy approach to where they publish.

  4. 4 @helen_kara November 7, 2012 at 9:16 am

    Ross, thanks for your comment and for the link to Solomon and Bjork’s research. I notice from their work that the lowest charges were made by journals published in developing countries, and that the highest charge they found was over £2,400 (at today’s exchange rate). Also their data was collected in 2010, and prices are likely to have risen since then, in line with everything else.

    I take your point that the Finch report may have over-estimated the likely costs of Gold OA, but I still suspect that the situation in the UK is likely to be closer to their estimate than to Solomon and Bjork’s average. And even if it’s not, $906/£565 is still a lot of money for an individual to find.

    It ‘s good news that there’s a highly respected free-to-publish journal in your field. I hope one day there will be in mine – and all other fields, come to that – but, sadly, we’re not there yet.

  1. 1 New Year’s Resolution: Open Access Only | Helen Kara Trackback on January 3, 2017 at 12:12 pm

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