Open Access Publishing – Transparency and Accountability in Scientific Research and Publishing

Scientific publishing, and communication in general, has changed rapidly and radically over the past 20 years. With the advent of the Internet, communication and publishing has become affordable to all, to the point that one only needs a few megabytes of online space, a HTML editor and a word processor to claim to be a “Publisher”. (Actually, even a account would suffice to this purpose. Registering and configuring this blog using took me about two hours. I can now publish this first post on the blog.). There is no doubt that a number of dubious operations from across the globe are popping and claiming to be academic publishers.

There are numerous people who claim that open access publishing is inherently biased, as authors have to pay a publishing fee in order to publish their paper. Similarly, their analysis concludes that open access journals would therefore only receive manuscripts of lower quality, unpublishable by other journals. This is a very simplistic analysis and only a fool would jump to such a conclusion.

Professional open access publishing operations, such as those maintained by MDPI, make a clear separation between editorial and administrative matters. Using the industry standard peer-review procedure and external, academic editors that volunteer to oversee the journals’ peer-review and decision-making processes, the decision to publish a particular paper is decoupled from financial issues or particular interests pursued by the Publisher. There is no reason to believe that a subscription journal should apply higher standards in peer-refereeing manuscripts compared to an open access journal. It is even less clear how to apply this claim to an entire Publisher—each journal has its own editorial team and lead editor, with different policies, strategies, and standards as to what is deemed publishable.

Personally, I do not know of any academic editor that receives a compensation per paper published, and such a compensation would clearly violate this separation of concerns between editorial and administrative management, and rise concerns on the integrity of the journal applying this scheme. Most academic editors, like referees, provide their work for free. In some cases academic editors receive a small, fixed compensation to run the editorial office of a journal (for instance to hire a student to serve as the editorial assistant of the journal and to provide office materials). However, an increasing number of journals, especially larger ones, have in-house assistant editors who are continuously and professionally trained by the Publisher. Those assistant editors will typically coordinate the refereeing of the submitted manuscripts under the supervision of the external, academic editors. For large journals it impossible to have a full-time researcher to manage the review procedure for hundreds of submitted manuscripts.

Going back to the comparison of subscription Publishers versus open access Publishers, we should note that the open availability and licensing of open access journals does in fact increase the transparency and accountability of scientific research: it becomes easier to automatically screen large text bases with software to detect possible mistakes or cases of plagiarism. Applying such software on copyrighted content from subscription Publishers is, in most cases, illegal. Also, open access journals are open to a much higher scrutiny due to their public exposure and larger readership.

One of the most critical aspect of scholarly publishing is peer-review. Although often criticized, peer-review is still the best system to date to ensure the publication of high quality scientific works. Nevertheless, it happens occasionally, and to both subscription as well as open access Publishers, that partly plagiarized papers or papers based on manipulated or fake data slip through the peer-review process and end up formally published in academic journals of repute. A serious Publisher has the obligation to investigate such cases when they are brought to its attention, and should react accordingly if the paper is found to have been inappropriately published. At the same time, the Publisher has to continuously improve its procedures and train its in-house and academic editors to gradually make the peer-review system better.

Experimenting with Open Peer-Review in Life

MDPI is now testing the waters to increase the accountability and transparency of its journal further by publishing the peer-review reports and authors’ responses for papers published in the journal Life. If this turns out to help increasing transparency, without hurting the intention of authors to submit to the journals or those of potential referees to peer-review for the journal, it is certainly a scheme that we will consider expanding to other journals. For an initial test phase, authors submitting manuscripts to Life will have the choice (after acceptance of their paper) to publish the referees’ comments and their responses along with the paper. Referees will be given the option to sign their review comments and thus publicly reveal their identity. To protect the impartiality of the peer-review process, the identity of the referees will not be revealed to the authors until after a paper is accepted for publication.

(Picture courtesy of Opensourceway,, licensed under CC-BY-SA)