The Basics of Open Access

If you’re a researcher looking to publish your first article, one of the biggest choices that you will likely be confronted with is the choice of publishing in your work Open Access or going with a traditional, closed access publisher.

Both have their advantages and disadvantages. Both also have major impacts on the rights of the author and the visibility of the research and the ability of others to build upon that research.

However, there’s a great deal of confusion and uncertainty about Open Access. Though the term has been around since the early 2000s, it’s not very well understood by many researchers, especially those that are new to the publication process. 

So, it’s worth taking a few moments to understand the basics of Open Access including the concept, how it differs from “traditional publishing” and the benefits/drawbacks of the approach.

How Traditional Publishing Works

Traditional publishing works on a business model that involves selling access to the articles they publish. This access includes individuals or institutions subscribing to the journal or people paying for access to individual articles.

For researchers, this means submitting an article to a journal and, if it’s accepted, the journal pays for it to be peer reviewed and then for it to be published. The author(s) do not pay anything, but are required to sign over the copyright in their article so that the journal can charge for access to it.

This approach has been met with a great deal of criticism. The largest is that it locks important research behind a paywall, meaning that other researchers, members of the public and even government agencies may not be able to access the work they need. 

Though Open Access has been growing in popularity over the past few decades, this traditional model still makes up a majority of academic publishing. This means that a majority of published research is hidden behind paywalls and not available to those that don’t or can’t pay for access to it outside of pirated copies. 

How Open Access is Different

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Open Access, as a concept, is meant to address exactly that issue by granting everyone access to needed research and avoiding paywalls that can stymie research and progress.

The idea is fairly simple, the work is published and anyone can access the work for free (though we’ll discuss the extent of those freedoms in a bit). Essentially, open access journals or publications don’t charge users for access to their content.

This is largely achieved through the use of Creative Commons licenses. These licenses make the work available for reuse and sharing, provided the original author(s) are attributed and the exact terms of the license are followed. Even better for authors, they do not have to sign over their copyright and, instead, typically grant a non-exclusive license to the publication. 

However, while works published via Open Access are free to view and share, that doesn’t change the fact that publishing research costs money, in particular completing the peer review. Open access journals have to find some way to recoup those costs.

To that end, most have adopted an “author pays” system, where the author(s) pay for an article processing charge (APC), commonly referred to as a publication fee. Other journals fund themselves through sponsorships or other outside sources. 

In short, by changing who pays for the publication, Open Access journals make work available to everyone. This increases both access to and the visibility of the research contained within.

Some Terms to Know

Open Access uses a color naming system to identify different kinds of open access. However, for this introduction, there are only three terms that are important to know. 

  • Gold Open Access: Gold Open Access is when a journal makes all their content available for free on their website and licenses the content for reuse via an open license, usually a Creative Commons license. 
  • Green Open Access: Green Open Access is essentially self-publishing by the author(s). The works are published and available for others to view for free, but the work has not gone through peer review. This can include works published on sites controlled by the author, their institution, or on public archives. Some Green Open Access works are published following peer review, those are dubbed “postprints”.
  • Hybrid Open Access: Some journals contain both open access and closed access articles, with authors choosing which they prefer and paying a publishing fee if they choose Open Access. This approach is controversial as the journal is receiving both subscriptions and publishing fees. 

Open Access works are also described as either “gratis” or “libre”. Gratis articles are free to view, but there is no clear license to allow or encourage reuse. Libre works are free to view, but also are under a license that allows at least some reusage rights.

Those rights are covered in the license the journal or the author(s) chose. Typically, those licenses are Creative Commons Licenses. To that end, Creative Commons licenses allow for reuse of a work, but different licenses place different restrictions. The restrictions to be aware of are as follows:

  • BY: This means “by”, which requires that any reuse contain attribution to the original source. This is a requirement of all Creative Commons licenses other than CC0, which is essentially a public domain dedication and rarely used in Open Access.
  • SA: This means “share alike” and allows others to create derivative works based on the original, but any derivative must be licensed under the same terms.
  • ND: This means “no derivatives” which bars the creation of derivative works. Though it is legal to copy and distribute the original work, it must be complete, and no derivative works can be made based upon it.
  • NC: This means “non-commercial”, which forbids the use of the article in any commercial capacity, including selling copies of it. As we’ve seen in studies in the past, the definition of commercial use in this context may be difficult to nail down

These four variables can be strung together to create a license. For example, CC BY-NC-ND allows the work to be copied and distributed, but only with attribution and only as long as the use is not commercial and does not create a derivative work.

It is worth noting that most Open Access Journals simply use CC BY, which only carries the obligation of attribution.

That attribution is a big part of why Open Access is tempting. For researchers that want their work to have the biggest impact possible, Open Access is likely a good choice.

The Key Benefits of Open Access

While the benefits to other researchers and the public are fairly obvious, Open Access also has strong benefits to authors as well.

Research indicates that open access articles are both read and cited more than closed access ones. The reason for this is simply that, with fewer barriers to access, Open Access works are easier to read and include in further research.

For the author, there are also copyright benefits. Publishing in a closed access journal typically requires the author(s) to sign over their rights to the work. With Open Access, the author only signs away a non-exclusive license and retains control over their work. Though they can’t revoke the Creative Commons license, they can still use and share their work as they please.

In short, articles published via Open Access tend to have greater visibility and authors tend to retain both more control and more freedom over their work. But that doesn’t mean that everything is perfect. There are several reasons that authors should give pause before going this route.

The Drawbacks of Open Access

The biggest and most obvious disadvantage of Open Access is the (typical) requirement of paying a publishing fee. This fee is often in the thousands of dollars, and there are many researchers for whom there is no realistic way that they can pay that. 

To be clear, for researchers working at wealthy institutions, this likely isn’t much of a hurdle. But researchers without that kind of backing may struggle to come up with the needed money to fund publication.

To make matters worse, these publishing fees have also attracted a deluge of predatory journals. These journals are not interested in publishing real science, with some even having published fake text, they simply collect publication fees and pretend to publish the research. As such, it is very important to vet any open access publisher that you are looking to publish with. 

However, publishing fees aren’t the only problem. There are open access journals that don’t require a publishing fee, instead getting their funding through donations or another outside source. But even those systems aren’t perfect, as they can create incentives for journals to publish (or not publish) specific types of research.

However, while most such journals do publish ethically, they are limited in the amount of work they can review. As the number of articles published every year continues to increase, it’s unlikely that such funding will keep pace.

Much of this speaks to the ongoing crisis in research, which is seeing a growing desire to publish new research, but costs and other limitations are making it more difficult to both publish and access research.

Bottom Line

There is no singular answer to what is the best way to publish academic research. The traditional, closed access, system has many flaws and drawbacks. Open Access addresses those issues, but introduces new problems. 

That said, for many authors, Open Access can be a power approach to getting their work published, giving it the largest audience possible and helping it get more citations and attention. While it’s important to avoid key pitfalls such as predatory journals and excessive publishing fees, it is still a potentially outstanding opportunity.

In the end, researchers need to decide what approach works best for them and their work. There are no easy answers here. Take the time to weigh all the factors and make an educated decision on what approach to target.

No matter what one thinks about Open Access or closed access, it is ultimately a good thing that authors have options and have a chance to make a decision for themselves.

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