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We have compared low-pressure oxygen RF plasmas and the etching of photoresist in a reactive sputter etch reactor and in a magnetron etch reactor using Langmuir probe, optical emission actinometry, and mass spectrometry measurements. The Langmuir probe data allow the determination of the plasma ion density and electron temperature, and thus the ion flux onto the substrate. The optical data yield information on the presence of O atoms and O2+ ions. Stable reactant and product species are monitored with a mass spectrometer. The main difference between the two reactors is that in magnetron sputter etching (MSE), the ion flux to the substrate is about an order of magnitude higher, under comparable plasma conditions, than in reactive sputter etching (RSE). This accounts for the higher etch rate in MSE. However, the etch yield per ion is higher in RSE because of the higher ion energy. Etch rates correlate neither with the ion flux to the substrate nor with the density of O atoms in the plasma, but change in parallel with the consumption of reactant gas. We conclude that in etching a polymer in a low-pressure oxygen plasma, the main neutral reactant species are O2 molecules, and an important role of the ions is to remove reaction products from the substrate surface.