what is open access

August 08, 2021 •

6 min reading

Open Access Publishing: Scholarly articles available to everyone

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Have you ever carried out some online research and then stumbled across an article that requires payment or journal membership in order for you to read more than just the summary? This “pay to read” system is what has traditionally been in place for anyone wishing to access scholarly publications. Some academic journals still operate under this 'pay-toll' method, although the last 20 years of digital revolution has helped democratize access to online academic research thanks to the 'Open Access' system that makes it free, immediate, available and re-useable to anyone with internet connection.

What is Open Access?

Open Access is a publishing system that allows everyone to view publicly funded research for free. This replaces the traditional model where university scholars donated time, labour and public money to the publication of peer-reviewed work, only to have it sold back to their universities and students via large journal subscription fees. 

Open Access also offers major social and economic benefits: commitment to data transparency and making ethical use of the general public’s taxes. Academics, students, patients, journalists, politicians or interested amateurs are better informed as a result of having access to the latest scholarly findings. Simply put, research funded by the public for the public.

In 1942, American sociologist Robert King Merton declared: « Each researcher must contribute to the 'common pot' and give up intellectual property rights to allow knowledge to move forward. »

Since academic and scientific research is, in essence, paid for by governments via the tax payer, it has always been a sore point to expect students, teachers and interested members of the public to pay all over again for having access to it. The whole point of research is that it should be shared, especially among student communities, in order for the knowledge base to expand and be capitalized upon. 

In May 2016, the European Union announced that "all scientific articles in Europe must be freely accessible as of 2020" and that it aimed to "develop and encourage measures for optimal compliance with the provisions for open access to scientific publications" thanks to their Framework Programme for Research & Innovation. With the long-awaited official support of governments, access to scholarly research was finally prised out of the hands of the main journal publishers who had previously held the pay-toll monopoly (e.g., Elsevier, Springer, Wiley & Blackwell, Taylor & Francis). For decades, criticism had been mounting that publishers - not the scientific community - owned the knowledge. Not forgetting the fact that the price of certain journals had outpaced inflation over the last 30 years!

Many funding bodies now only finance work that is destined for Open Access publication.

"The Open Access movement is motivated by the problems of social inequality caused by restricting access to academic research, which favor large and wealthy institutions with the financial means to purchase access to many journals, as well as the economic challenges and perceived unsustainability of academic publishing." Wikipedia.


From 'pay-to-read' to 'pay-to-publish'

In brief, the paradigm has shifted from the end-user paying to read an academic or scientific paper in a prestigious journal to the researcher paying to be published. More precisely, the researcher's payment is mainly made by academic institutions that have negotiated Open Access contracts, known as "Read and Publish" with publishing houses. This can be done in a variety of ways using the Open Access system.

Gold Route: Researchers, via their institutions and funding, can choose to pay a considerable "article processing charge" to an open access journal which has the key advantage of making articles and papers freely accessible from when they are published, meaning they can be used immediately. In addition, the open content licenses associated with the Gold option grant wide exploitation rights. The immediate availability also achieves a level of visibility which has a positive impact on how widely a publication is disseminated and how frequently it is cited, thereby increasing the author's reputation. 

Green Route: Researchers publish their article for a lesser fee in any journal and then self-archive a copy in a freely accessible institutional or specialist online archive known as a repository. This option does not offer the same legal framework for content licensing, as a result, exploitation is only permitted within the confines of the legal restrictions of copyright law. There is no uniform rule governing the open accessibility of publications because different publishing houses impose different embargo periods before making the articles freely available. 

There are growing alternative Open Access options such as Plos One, a peer-reviewed scientific journal where submissions are subject to an article processing charge; no article is excluded on the basis of lack of importance or adherence to a scientific field. All submissions go through a pre-publication review by a member of the board of academic editors who can elect further opinion from external reviewers.

Despite its overall encouraging reception, Open Access has received some criticism claiming that the system can favor 'predatory' publishers lacking in reputation and legitimacy, especially with regards to peer review practices. It's important to follow a rigorous checks on new publishing houses that have sprung up in recent years following the shift towards Open Access. Important questions to be asked: Is the publication peer-reviewed and what are the metrics used? Where is the journal indexed and how is it perceived among the research community?


Who benefits from Open Access?

Undeniably, the removal of the pay wall has increased the visibility of research findings, increased usage and citation. For the average student, especially in the scientific field, the benefits have been enormous. Students from economically struggling countries or low-income universities previously could not have afforded to supplement their learning from research journals. The opening of the gateway to knowledge means that a patient wanting to find out more about specific medical treatment can now read a research paper on the subject and feel better informed.

If an article is Open Access, it can be read by anyone in the world with internet connection, as a result, the potential readership is far greater than one where the full text is restricted to paying subscribers. By increasing the number of readers, article citations significantly widen the name and standing of the author. With the traditional pay-to-read method, only the abstract of the paper was made freely available online, promoting a type of 'echo chamber' among academics where only researchers could read other researchers' entire work.

Full availability of a scholarly article (whether Green or Gold) has another important advantage: it is possible to crosslink the article to any research datasets and software used in its production. This improves 'the research process' by permitting other researchers to examine the work in depth and validate, or contradict, the conclusions.

Essentially, Open Access facilitates the sharing of scholarly knowledge among the student community and its extension beyond immediate academic circles to those who might previously not been able to afford it. By making the most of public funds and the available digital technology, the Open Access publishing system also serves the average layperson keen to expand their knowledge base and insights.

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EHL Insights content editor