One of the world's oldest scientific societies has warned that the spread of open access journals — as well as open archiving — could have a "disastrous" impact on scientific publishing, possibly forcing some peer-reviewed journals to close.
Proponents of open access deny this claim, saying there is no evidence to support such alarmist statements, and that its authors have confused various strands of the open access debate.
The statement was made this week by the UK Royal Society, which established the world's first (and on-going) peer-reviewed scientific journal, Philosophical Transactions, in 1665.
The society says it welcomes recent technological advances that improve the exchange of knowledge both among researchers and between them and wider society.
It also acknowledges that some scientific publishers "appear to be making excessive profits". This is a key complaint made by librarians in recent years, and one that has triggered enthusiasm for the open access concept.
But the Royal Society complains about the pressure being applied by some funders — particularly in biomedical science — who are lobbying for immediate open access to research papers, and for faster development of web-based open access journals, repositories and archives.
As a result, the society believes that the impact of 'open access' models has not been properly considered, and that the primary aim of improving the exchange of knowledge might not be realised.
The society also says that publishing models in which researchers pay to submit or publish papers "introduce a new disincentive to the exchange of knowledge".
Such financial barriers, it says, will be more acute for researchers with the least amount of funds, such as those in the very early or late stages of their careers, or in developing countries.
It points out that current publication practices vary across scientific disciplines and across the world, saying: "A young post-doctoral researcher in mathematics at an Ethiopian university has different needs and different means compared with an established senior research fellow in pharmacology a UK company's laboratory". As a result a 'one-size-fits-all' model is unlikely to benefit everybody.
"The worst-case scenario is that funders force a rapid change in practice, which encourages the introduction of new journals, archives and repositories that cannot be sustained in the long term, but which simultaneously forces the closure of existing peer-reviewed journals that have a long-track record for gradually evolving in response to the needs of the research community," says the society. "That would be disastrous for the research community".
The statement was immediately attacked by supporters of open access, who argue that it failed to distinguish between open access publishing — in which scientific publishers agree to make the content of scientific journals freely available immediately on publication — and open archiving, which focus on persuading institutions to create open access electronic depositories of the work of their researchers.
"This crucial distinction is completely clouded over in the society's statement," says one of the leading open access campaigners, Stephen Harnad of the UK-based University of Southampton.
In a detailed response published on the American Scientist Open Access Forum, Harnad describes it as a statement "for which the Royal Society, a venerable and distinguished institution, will have profound reason to be ashamed in coming years."
But the Royal Society's statement suggests that it is unlikely to modify its stance, suggesting that the approach of "some organisations" to the open access debate threatens to hinder the exchange of knowledge between researchers.
"This is partly because some participants in the debate appear to be trying to pursue another aim, namely to stop commercial publishers from making profits from the publication of research that has been funded from the public purse," it says.
"While some companies do appear to be making excessive profits from the publication of researchers' papers, this should not be the primary factor guiding future developments in the exchange of knowledge between researchers."