“Gold Open Access” – where authors pay to have their papers published, and made freely available on line – is one response to the well documented predatory practices of commercial journal publishers (for discussion of the latter problem, mostly as regards economics journals, see Ted Bergstrom’s website.)
On-line publishing, though, has low entry costs – especially if you don’t do any real peer review, editing, or archiving – and the combination of on-line publishing and gold open access has produced new “publishers”, often with unfeasibly large suites of new journals that look very much alike, and torrents of spam-ish “calls for papers” in academic email inboxes. Jeffrey Beall, a librarian at the University of Colorado, Denver, publishes a list of “Potential, possible, or probable predatory scholarly open-access publishers“; his blog, Scholarly Open Access, discusses cases. Read a few of the cases and the line between academic publishing and “send me your bank details and help me smuggle my family fortune out of Nigeria” will seem very thin indeed. I’m not sure that you’d want to publish a blog like Beall’s in a jurisdiction with UK-type libel laws (that’s a complaint about the libel laws, not about Beall).
Informative though Beall’s blog can be, I do think he’s got a chip on his shoulder. He talks about predation, but he doesn’t really seem to like open access in general. Reviewing Alma Swan’s report on open access for UNESCO, he slates her for using the term “double dipping” to describe what he calls “toll-access journals that give authors the opportunity to make their work available to all; an open-access, alternative publishing model”. I think he means journals which mix gold open access and pay-walled articles – so, even if half the authors pay to have their papers made open access, libraries will have to subscribe to get the journal, meaning that, effectively, libraries pay again for the gold open access articles that authors / their employers / whoever paid for the research, have already paid for. “Double dipping” may be an argumentative way to describe this, but his label, “an open access alternative”, is so anodyne that it amounts to apologia for predatory commercial publishers.
Similarly, Beall sniffs that “UNESCO’s real mission is the north-south transfer of wealth, and open access to scholarly literature is one way to achieve this, thus the motivation to publish this work”. So? Sharing of knowledge, and thus the wealth that comes from it, is of course an issue here (one might hope it is part of Beall’s job as a librarian). Sharing between rich and poor countries is one of the objectives of many open-access advocates – in the digital age, a good research library could, and should, be available to anybody in the world with a web connection; but it is not, and in many poor countries not even the best universities can afford a decent library. Of course it is not clear how much the sharing of knowledge via open access would mean transfer of wealth, and how much it would mean expansion of wealth. It can’t be anything close to a pure transfer, though, because many uses of knowledge are, in economic terms, non-rival. In principle there might be a free rider problem, whereby open access would lead to a reduction in overall research, but this would only happen if an important motivation for research funding in Country A is that research results in Country B are locked up in pay-walled journal articles in Country B’s libraries. I’m not going to spend the rest of the afternoon picking holes in that outlandish scenario.