Open access should be for writers as well as readers

Even journals that have removed paywalls retain their bias towards certain types of author – and their prejudice against others, says Katie Stripe

May 21, 2023
A "open" shop sign, symbolising open access
Source: iStock

Academic publishers’ traditional role as the gatekeepers of information has been challenged recently by the open-access movement. The feeling that everyone ought to be able to read publicly funded research has encouraged academics, librarians and funders to begin removing subscription paywalls. While progress might be slower than some would like, it is advancing. But one aspect of publishers’ stranglehold on information remains: their control over who can deliver it.

Restrictions on scope, themes and article types are a way of maintaining a journal’s structure, providing consistency to readers and streamlining the review and editing processes. It is clear that publishers need to check the authenticity and rigour of academic work – and, of course, to make money. Nevertheless, even open-access journals, particularly those that sit within the major publishing houses, are highly biased towards certain types of author – and prejudiced against others.

Insistence on a house style with opaque rules often known only to a certain type of author with a specific academic background are a barrier to new authors, and often neurodiverse readers and writers. This archaic structure serves to limit publication options for those outside the academic mainstream. Furthermore, blind review processes that are ostensibly designed to remove bias from the processes instead allow some reviews carte blanche to be rude and unhelpful, safe in the knowledge they will not be challenged. This allows bullying, condescension and arrogance, which has further impact on those already marginalised by the historical inaccessibility of the publishing process.

As a member of learning support staff without a PhD, the world of academic publishing is quite opaque to me because I do not have the implicit training in academic writing that comes from working in a research environment. However, I am experienced and imaginative and feel I have something to contribute to the field – and why shouldn’t I?

But an anonymous review of one of my papers included phrases such as “I am afraid some readers of this review may feel that I am biased”, “I frankly admit that I am biased against a new approach” and “I had best abstain from continuing to deplore the author’s disregard for…” This review went on to describe a piece of research the authors carried out 40 years ago and to suggest that this obviated the need for a new model for learning in the 21st century.

None of this is professional, nor is it helpful, but a brief look at academic Twitter will tell you that this kind of abuse of anonymity is not uncommon.

I am not against feedback. I ask for it; it is how I develop my own writing. But this reviewer’s feedback did not help me learn. It made me angry, not because the paper I had submitted was rejected, but because the system is rigged.

Such attitudes are extremely damaging, not only to individual authors but also to knowledge as a whole. They serve to exclude from the research literature many valuable insights, not only from experienced people in non-academic teaching and professional service roles, but also from junior academics. Furthermore, in academic institutions it is often people in non-academic roles who implement new educational tools and ideas. Surely everyone would benefit if they were more able to share and compare their experiences in an academic forum.


If journals must insist on every article being written in a certain approved “voice”, they should at least make that clear in their authors’ notes. I would ask publishers and editors whether they really want that voice to alienate a diverse group of readers. Additionally, do publishers and editors really think their traditional article templates are the best way of presenting information in the 21st century? And why are there no guidelines for reviewers to provide constructive feedback?

The argument from editors that we do it this way because it has always been done this way never held much water. But in an era of open access it should sink like a stone. Open access should not only be for readers. It should be for writers, too.

Katie Stripe is a senior learning designer at Imperial College London.

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