Open Access: the basics

Collection of orange badges emblazoned with the Open Access logo

Open Access Week is an annual event that aims to raise awareness of Open Access as a new form of disseminating research output. This year, it takes place from 20th to 26th October. To mark the occasion, I have cross-posted some information about Open Access from my blog, which I hope may be of use to members of the community.  


What I aim to do in the paragraphs that follow is describe what Open Access publication is, discuss some salient advantages and concerns, and provide readers with resources which I have found useful. It is by no means an exhaustive treatise on Open Access, but I hope that it can function as a primer for those among us for whom this is a new concept.

What is Open Access?

Simply put, Open Access (OA) publications are scholarly publications that are provided to readers free of charge. Most commonly, the term OA publications is used to refer to journal articles, although similar models are emerging for books as well. Under the OA publication model, publication costs are borne by the author(s), or by their sponsors, rather than the readers, as is the case in traditional publishing. Open Access publications are peer-reviewed, ideally to the same standards of rigour as traditional publications (but more on that later). More information about OA publishing can be found in this briefing document.

Why consider Open Access?

From an author’s perspective, choosing an Open Access journal as an outlet for dissemination of their work will likely lead to increased visibility and impact. The OA publishing model is also advantageous to users who do not have institutional access to paywall-protected research. Even in the case of large, affluent universities, there are mounting concerns that the traditional model of publication, which relies on institutions purchasing subscriptions to journals, is no longer sustainable. A detailed listing of benefits of the OA model, along with supporting references, can be found here.

Several government agencies and other research funding bodies are gradually adopting Open Access policies. This means that researchers who receive funding from these agencies undertake to make the findings available to the public through OA publications. Such policies have been implemented, or are being phased in, by the US federal government (1, 2), funding agencies in the UK (1, 2, 3), and the European Commission, among others. By way of example, in the EU, research output produced with Horizon 2020 funding must be made accessible online no later than six months after initial publication (or 12 months for the social sciences and the humanities). By 2016, it is expected that 60% of publicly-funded in Europe will be available under Open Access.

What are the differences between ‘Green’ and ‘Gold’ Open Access?

In the Green Open Access model, the author is allowed to archive a post-print version of a published article in an institutional repository, a discipline-specific repository or the author’s personal website, all of which should be publicly accessible. Post-prints are papers that have undergone peer-review, and have satisfied publication requirements, but have not been typeset or formatted by the journal yet. One should note that copyright remains with the journal, and not all journals allow this kind of archiving as a default option, but it is always possible to negotiate. Green OA might involve a fee, and/or there may be an ‘embargo’ period, during which the paper is only available to journal subscribers. The SHERPA/RoMEO database lists the copyright policies for a large number of journals, and should be consulted by researchers who consider publishing under Green Open Access.

Under Gold Open Access, journals make published papers immediately available for viewing to anyone interested, free of charge. To cover costs, Gold OA often requires substantial article processing fees (APCs) to be paid upfront. From April 2013 onwards, research funds have been made available in the UK to cover APCs. Regrettably, this publishing model has attracted many publishers of dubious repute, who do not engage in rigorous peer review, and whose output cannot be considered scholarly. Beall’s List is currently the most comprehensive listing of predatory, or potentially predatory publishers, and it should be consulted by researchers who consider publishing under Gold Open Access.

Are there any downsides to Open Access?

The Open Access publication model has come under sustained scrutiny, on the grounds of uneven quality of OA journals. Most recently, Science reported on a ‘sting’ operation, in which different machine-generated versions of spoof paper were accepted by no fewer than 157 OA journals. This was despite the fact that, in the author’s words, “[a]ny reviewer with more than a high-school knowledge of chemistry and the ability to understand a basic data plot should have spotted the paper’s short-comings immediately“, and the experiments reported were “so hopelessly flawed” as to render the paper devoid of meaning. The conclusions of the ‘sting’ operation were criticised by several OA proponents (examples: 1, 2, 3), who claimed that the affair demonstrated a failure of the peer-review process, rather than the OA model; it was also pointed out that traditional publishing has not proved immune to such disasters (e.g., the Sokal hoax, and other less famous cases: 1, 2). Nevertheless, it seems that the financial considerations involved in OA, particularly in the Gold model, are such that invite corruption in ways that traditional publishing doesn’t.

Discussions of the Open Access publication model are often framed in a discourse of academic ethics, and while OA appears to democratise the research process, an argument could be made that, in some respects at least, this approach to publishing mightwiden the gap between privileged and less privileged academic settings. There can be little doubt that researchers without access to funding will benefit from being able to peruse scholarly publications under OA; what is less obvious is that, since publication costs are transferred to the author, such researchers are likely to find it harder to publish. This seems particularly true in the case of researchers in developing countries, and in chronically underfunded disciplines, such as the Arts and Humanities. Even if funding agencies sponsor publication, it is difficult to see how the scope and quality of research will remain unaffected by higher publication costs. On the whole, it seems fair to say that eventually, in the majority of cases, Open Access will likely make it easier to consumeresearch outputs, but harder to produce them. To the best of my knowledge, a discussion about how such risks might be avoided has yet to develop in earnest.

  • I have uploaded some more information about Open Access here and here.
  • This blog also hosts an early version of the post above. I don’t like it very much – please don’t read it!
  • The featured image, “Open Access promomateriaal”, was kindly shared by biblioteekje @ Flickr, under a Creative Commons BY-NC-SA 2.0 license. This means that it be shared on the web for non-commercial purposes, provided the original creator is credited, and subsequent users agree to share any modified version of the photo under similar conditions.   


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