Open Access (OA) journals have made a massive impact in the world of academic publishing. A handful of such journals has grown into a massive range.
Much has been written about OA, the gold(authors pay the publication charges for their articles which are free to download) and green (authors can place a copy of their articles in pre-print or post-print format in online repositories operated by their universities or databases such as Arxiv, see more on the Romeo project) routes (see also Open access funding models), its power and the boycott of established publishers such as Elsevier, the Finch report and much more, see (OASIS, We neet to talk about kevin , er, open access etc.
Clearly OA is here to stay and has a lot of power- on average open-access articles are cited 176% more often than print/paid-subscription articles (see for example, bibliography on studies on impact of open access, Swan 2010). Is it then the path to information for all, the true access to knowledge for all?
At this point it is also worth mentioning that there are some very big discipline specific factors that affect OA journals. There are reports that compare Humanities and Social Sciences and Science (HSS) with Science, Technology and Medicine (STM) journals see for example this link.
I believe that open access to research is part of the story, not all of it.
The debate on OA has focused a lot (especially with regards to STM journals) on the benefits to readers. Implicit in this is the assumption that all authors have equal access to publication in OA journals.
I want to discuss this assumption.
As the number of open access journals, the frequency of issues and number of articles increase, the net effect is a massive information deluge that a reader cannot cope with. The result is that readers apply selection criteria to filter out and read some journals more regularly than others. Quality of articles, impact factors and citation rates influence the selection among other factors. Thus, not all quality work and journals get the same readership.
The knock-on effect is that authors increasingly want to publish in the journals that give their work the most impact. This means journals with higher citation rates and large impact factors, large readership, and strategic readers. The competition is for eyeballs and for article space in some of these highly prized open access journals.
This is where the issue of publication charges becomes crucial.
I take the example of my research area of Optics, in which the OA journals that figure in the top 20 (ranked by 5 year Impact Factor (IF)) are Optics Express (ranked 4 with 5 year IF=3.666), IEEE Photonics Journal (ranked 13 with IF=2.320), see Journal Citation reports. All the OA journals have publication charges. The minimum charges for Optics Express and IEEE Photonics Journal are over $1000 (see links to Optics Express publication fees, IEEE Photonics Journal charges).
Publication charges can price out researchers from
1. Individuals/small groups/universities with relatively modest funding
2. Researchers from poorer countries, currency conversion rates further exacerbate the pain
Though authors can still publish in the traditional journals that do not charge a publication fee and then make their work freely available through online repositories (the green route to OA), this has problems:
1. Difference in impact factors will still affect these authors when applying for grants, jobs, promotions etc., i.e. anything competitive where journal prestige and citations are important.
2. Its not completely certain their work will get the same attention (?) (if published in a non OA journal).
Consider for example: Optics Express has a higher number of total cites (54094, ranked 2nd by number of cites for all Optics journals and 5th by 5year IF) than its much older and also very prestigious sister journal Optics Letters (ranked 3rd by total number of cited-45759, and 7th by 5 year IF), even though Optics Express is only in its 20th year, while Optics Letters is in its 37th year of publication. Source: Journal Citation reports from Web of Science, figures taken on 5th October 2012.
3. Not all institutions worldwide have online repositories, or all disciplines suitable online archives
Thus the gold route to OA where the burden of publication charges is borne solely by the authors can also lead to inequality: some can afford to publish in the best OA journals, while some cant!
Can we afford this sort of inequality in research? Do we want it?
If we cant read the interesting, novel, unique work done by talented people from diverse backgrounds the entire research community would be poorer. We would all suffer in that if the quality of what we read is not the best possible, our own output cannot be the best possible.
To me this suggests that OA needs more work for it to truly serve the research community. We need to find a way to distribute the publishing costs so that deserving authors are not priced out of publishing and readers are not (as a result priced out) of reading such work.
 On his website librarian Micah VanderGrift quotes from a study by Suber and Sutton that 83% of OA journals by learned society publishers do not charge publication fees. This figure is an overview of OA journals across disciplines, hence the scenario could be very different for individual disciplines/areas.