Open Access Basics

Open access (OA) is a set of principles and a range of practices through which research outputs are distributed online, free of cost or other access barriers.

Watch the below video to get a brief primer on the basic mechanics of open access:

Open Access by the Canadian Association of Research Libraries

While open access can be applied to all forms of published research outputs, including peer-reviewed and non peer-reviewed academic journal articles, conference papers, theses, book chapters, and monographs, the primary focus of the OA movement has traditionally been academic journals. Whereas conventional (non-open access) journals cover publishing costs through access tolls such as subscriptions, site licenses or pay-per-view charges, open access journals are characterized by funding models which do not require the reader to pay to access the journal’s contents.

Free to read and share

Importantly, “true” open access (often referred to as libre open access) requires that the content be both freely available online and that barriers to copying or reuse are minimized through the application of a Creative Commons or other open license to the work (learn more about Creative Commons in the Creative Commons module). This is usually facilitated by allowing the original authors to retain copyright over their work and assigning an open license at the time of publication. As we will see later, alternative models of open access exist under which publishers makes academic works available online for free but retain copyright and prohibit further redistribution (often referred to as gratis open access). While this method of open access meets the baseline requirements of open distribution, it does not guarantee that the works can be reused and as a result is a limit on the utility of the research. The desire of publishers to retain ownership over academic knowledge, while also promoting open access to research, is just one example of the complex ways in which different stakeholders have interpreted open access and shaped it to meet their needs and preferences.

Facilitating access through new economic models

Providing free and unfettered access to academic literature begs an obvious question, how is open access financially sustainable? Open access advocates acknowledge that knowledge production is not free and there are both financial and other costs associated with high-quality academic publishing. Instead of relying on libraries, governments, industry and citizens to pay for access to scientific literature, open access publishing operates under the premise that there are viable funding models available that can ensure traditional peer review standards of quality while also making the following changes:

  • Rather than making journal articles accessible through a subscription business model, all academic publications could be made free to read and published with some other cost-recovery model, such as publication charges, subsidies, or charging subscriptions only for the print edition, with the online edition gratis or “free to read”.
  • Rather than relying on traditional notions of “all rights reserved” copyright models, authors and publishers could instead offer up academic content under a “some rights reserved” model, which would make it free to be built upon by others.

In the contemporary publishing landscape the cost of publishing is hotly debated and if anything, open access has only intensified the conversation. For perhaps the first time, publishers have publicly attempted to quantify the cost of publishing an article through the adoption of article processing charges, fees passed along to authors to cover the cost of open access publishing. These fees have made it difficult to ignore that the cost of publishing is often far more than just the labor that goes into the production of the journal. Prestigious journals with fees in the thousands make it clear that publishing with them will cost a premium.

Reflection: OA publishing with Nature

In late 2020 the prestigious journal Nature announced that it would be offering an open access publishing option for its authors at a cost of €9,500 per article. As part of its justification for the unprecedented cost, Nature argued that their high rejection rates required that accepted articles bear the cost of their highly selective process, as they make no money from the effort that goes into reviewing unsuccessful manuscripts. Put another way, Nature is arguing that exclusivity results in higher costs for its authors.

How persuasive do you find Nature‘s argument? Should very selective journals be able to charge considerably more than others? What are the possible negative impacts of such high publication fees?

The prevalence of open access

Despite the complexities around the implementation of and transition to open access, the share of published research that is being made openly available continues to grow over time. While firm data on the prevalence of open access is difficult to obtain, a 2018 article by Piwowar et al. suggests that at least 28% of all published research is currently available under some form of open access. Additionally, their research shows that this percentage is much higher for recently published works. Of the academic papers published in 2015 (the most recent year analyzed in the study) 45% is open access.

Aside from looking at the total volume of open access publications, the success of open access can also be measured by support that open approaches have garnered from publishers, funders and institutions. The tenor of the conversation around open access has largely shifted from one about the if and why of open access to the how.

Dig Deeper

To learn more about the prevalence of open access publishing, review:

Piwowar et al. (2018). The state of OA: a large-scale analysis of the prevalence and impact of Open Access articles. Licensed under CC-BY 4.0.

What motivates the open access movement

The open access movement means different things to different groups. For the individual researcher it may be about ensuring that their research impact is optimized, for the funder it may be about their desire to facilitate innovation and international collaboration, for others it may be about transforming the publishing landscape and upsetting the prestige publishing economy. Each of these stakeholder groups will bring a different perspective and approach, attempting to mold open access in their image. Perhaps more than anything else, this module reflects the complex interplay of all of these motivations as they have come shape the open access movement.

Dig Deeper

To learn more about the history of open access, review: Chan et al. (2002). Budapest Open Access Initiative Declaration. Licensed under CC-BY.

Sections of this page were adapted from Open Access on Wikipedia. Licensed under CC-BY-SA.