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Is open access compatible with high standards and high quality?

Completely. The short answer is that the same factors that create high standards and high quality in traditional scholarly publications can be brought to bear, with the same effects, on open access literature. The long answer depends on whether we are talking about open access journals or open access repositories.

Open access journals. The quality of scholarly journals is a function of the quality of their editors, editorial boards, and referees, which in turn affect the quality of the authors who submit articles to them. Open access journals can have exactly the same quality controls working for them that traditional journals have. The main reason is that the people involved in the editorial process, and the standards they use, do not depend on the medium (print or electronic) or the cost (priced or free) of the publication. This is clearest in the case when the very same people who edit print or limited access journals also edit open access journals, either because their journal appears in two versions or because they resigned from a journal that didn't support open access and created a new open access journal to serve the same scholarly community. Open access journals do not differ from toll access journals in their commitment to peer review or their way of conducting it, but only in their cost-recovery model, which has no bearing on the quality of the articles they publish.

Open access repositories. Scholars self-archive either unrefereed preprints or refereed postprints. Let's take these in order.

(A) By calling preprints "unrefereed" we mean, of course, that they are not yet peer-reviewed. Their quality has not been tested or endorsed by others in the field. But this is because they are unrefereed preprints, not because an open access repository gives open access to them. As long as they are labelled as preprints, there is no misleading of readers and no dilution of the body of refereed or peer-reviewed literature.

(B) Refereed postprints have been peer-reviewed by journals. The standards by which they have been judged and recommended are those of journals in the field, and these standards do not depend on a journal's medium (print or electronic) or cost (priced or free). The quality of the articles endorsed by these standards depends entirely on these standards, not on the fact that an open access repository provides open access to them.

If the real question here is whether those who call for open access are really calling for the abandonment of peer review, or for a kind of self-publication to the internet that bypasses peer review, the answer is no.

(Based on the Budapest Open Access Initiative: Frequently Asked Questions)

The field of High-Energy Physics (HEP) has explored alternative communication strategies for decades, initially via the mass mailing of paper copies of preliminary manuscripts, then via the inception of the first online repositories and digital libraries. In 1991, Paul Ginsparg, then at the Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico, conceived arXiv, an internet-based system to disseminate preprints. arXiv was first based on e-mail and then on the web. Nowadays the research cycle in HEP is approaching maximum efficiency as a result of the early and free availability of articles that scientists in the field can use and build upon rapidly:

Brody has looked at the pattern of citations to articles deposited in arXiv, specifically at the length of the delay between when an article is deposited and when it is cited, and has published the aggregated data for each year from 1991. As more papers are deposited and more scientists use the repository, the time between an article being deposited and being cited has been shrinking dramatically, year upon year. This is important for research uptake and progress, because it means that in this area of research, where articles are made available at – or frequently before – publication, the research cycle is accelerating.

(From: Brody, Tim; Harnad, Stevan; Carr, Leslie. Earlier web usage statistics as predictors of later citation impact. Journal of the American Association for Information Science and Technology (JASIST), 2005, Vol. 57 no. 8 pp. 1060-1072; and Open Access: What is it and why should we have it? - ECS EPrints ...Open Access: What is it and why should we have it? Swan, A. (2006) Open Access: What is it and why should we have it?).

Anne Gentil-Beccot, Salvatore Mele and Travis Brooks analysed almost two decades of use of preprints and repositories in the HEP community in “Citing and Reading Behaviours in High-Energy Physics. How a Community Stopped Worrying about Journals and Learned to Love Repositories” and provided evidences that

  1. “submission of articles to an open access subject repository, arXiv, yields a citation advantage of a factor five”;
  2. “the citation advantage of articles appearing in a repository is connected to their dissemination prior to publication, 20% of citations of HEP articles over a two-year period occur before publication”; and
  3. “HEP scientists are between four and eight times more likely to download an article in its preprint form from arXiv rather than its final published version on a journal web site”.