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No reason not to publish Open Access

It’s the hallmark of quality science. The gold standard of academic research. It is the very epitome of what differentiates scientific knowledge from other kinds of knowledge. The peer-reviewed journal article.

Even for those of us who think there are other important outputs from academia – policy briefs, good practice guidance, etc – none of these will carry any weight without the credibility of the supporting peer-reviewed articles – those pieces of research that have undergone scrutiny and judgement by our peers.

So why is it that most physical scientists (and I single out Earth observation scientists here, as I am one of them) still insist on publishing in subscription based journals?

Open Access is the key.

Open Access is a key to a treasure chest. If we want our research to be used, widely, fairly, freely, then we need to publish it in the Open Access literature.

There was a lot of noise about Open Access publishing this week. The press in the UK had coverage of the Welcome Trust’s new policy on promoting Open Access publication for research they fund. And UNESCO launched their “Policy Guidelines for the Development and Promotion of Open Access”. “Universal access to knowledge and information” is their bold ambition and for unclassified, publicly-funded knowledge that is not commercially sensitive, then I would agree with them.

The issue is a simple one[1].  If you are a scientist and you publish in a specialised,  subscription-based journal (and we all do – I’m not excusing myself here) then your knowledge is not “open”.  It is not open if it has a barrier to access for the reader – a subscription, or a fee, or the need to know your email address to ask for a PDF copy[2].

Academic subscription journals cost a lot of money and this puts a limit on access to results of research (much of which, just to emphasise the point, is publicly funded). If we want small (and large!) businesses to utilise academic research more effectively, if we want developing countries to be able to access developed-world research results so that they can build their own research capacity and if we want to stem the unsustainable pressure on academics everywhere to “publish or die” …. then I would argue we should all start making the steps to move to Open Access.

Typical reasons not to publish in Open Access Journals include: there is not an appropriate Open Access journal in which to publish; the quality is not good enough for my research; or, there is a fee that I would rather not pay.

In Earth Observation, these points are no longer valid reasons not to publish.

Relevant Journals

In 2009 Remote Sensing became the first dedicated, proper Open Access journal for Earth observation and remote sensing[3]. So, there is now a true OA route for specific EO research.  Some journals, such as The International Journal of Remote Sensing, also now allow authors to make their specific articles Open Access, if they pay a fee. More general Open Access journals that will publish EO research include Environmental Research Letters and PLoS ONE.


While we might debate the point, Impact Factor is still the only way to gauge a sense of “quality”.  While Remote Sensing hasn’t been going long enough to get an impact factor, PLoS ONE has an impact factor[4] of 4.41 and Environmental Research Letters 3.04. This is to be compared to Remote Sensing of Environment 3.95, IEEE Transactions on Geoscience and Remote Sensing 2.47 and ISPRS Journal of Photogrammetry and Remote Sensing 2.16.  (All the other EO Journals are <2.0).   If we believe Open Access is the way to go, then we all need to help Remote Sensing become a journal of quality – and this is a chicken-and-egg problem.  If we don’t publish in it, the quality will never improve[5].


The simple solution to cost is for our institutions to move from spending money on subscriptions to spending money on author fees in Open Access journals. We all need to lobby our institutions to shift the emphasis. A complete change over will allow publishers to still receive an income, but that readers will have access to a wider range of publications.   Note also that PLoS ONE only has a voluntary fee, not a mandatory one, so that authors without access to funding can still publish.

Knowledge is power. So why do the world’s scientist persist in limiting access to their knowledge?

You can help make the change. This year, publish something as Open Access.

[1] Actually, its not quite that simple. There seems to be a tranche of academics who support Open Access simply because they object to paying the large subscription fees that some publishers charge, and not because they support the principles of making research freely available.

[2] You still need internet access, but that is a different story…

[3] One might argue that EARSeL’s eProceedings online are an Open Access journal, but it is more like a meetings proceedings. But full marks to EARSeL for making this Open Access from very early on.

[4] These are all 2010 values.

[5] I put my research where my mouth is. In the last year I have published twice in Remote Sensing (once on radar visualisation), twice in Environmental Research Letters (once on capacity building) and once in PLoS ONE.


The new UNESCO Policy Guidance is available here:www.unesco.org/new/en/media-services/single-view/news/open_access_to_scientific_information_policy_guidelines_for_open_access_released/

Public Library of Science (PloS ONE) www.plosone.org

Remote Sensing   www.mdpi.com/journal/remotesensing

Environmental Research Letters iopscience.iop.org/1748-9326

BBC Article on Open Access (10th April) www.bbc.co.uk/news/science-environment-17668722



5 thoughts on “No reason not to publish Open Access

  1. Thanks for an interesting and enlightening blog post as normal Iain!

    I have two short comments, one relatively trivial and one I think an important extension of your argument:

    1) I would have liked to see you mention the European Geosciences Union (EGU’s) excellent publication Biogeosciences (IF: 3.6). This was not only one of the first open access journals in this field, but also has opened up the peer review system. Papers submitted undergo an initial check, but are then published online in Biogeosciences Discussions. Peer reviews and authors responses are published online, and anyone interested can make comments. If the comments can be answered sucessfully then the paper goes on to be published in Biogeosciences – but the original draft(s) and comments remain archived online. I feel this model could revolutionise academic publishing if taken up more widely.

    2) Whether an open-access or closed-access publishing system is used, journals ultimately receive the majority of their revenues from research funding councils or broader university funding. Shifting to open access could be cost-neutral for both the funders and the journals if only the costs could be moved from library budgets to pools of funding that could be used by academics to pay publication fees. However this shift would have huge societal benefits. It would not be difficult to achieve: all it would take would be for funding bodies to insist that recipients of their grants publish only in open-access journals (or pay the open-access ‘author option’ fees for closed journals). Funding councils in the UK are moving that way it appears – let’s hope they are willing to make the brave decision.

    Posted by Dr Ed Mitchard | April 12, 2012, 10:13 am
  2. The UK will now move to Open Access. All government funded research articles will be made available for free: http://gu.com/p/379hj/tw via @guardian

    Posted by fortiain | July 16, 2012, 8:43 pm


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