Open access

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A breakdown of the availability of 1837 randomly chosen scientific articles by discipline and availability via Green Open Access or Gold Open Access.

Open access (OA) is the free online availability of digital content. It is best-known and most feasible for peer-reviewed scientific and scholarly journal articles, which scholars publish without expecting to be remunerated.

One of the major international statements on open access, which includes a definition, background information, and a list of signatories, is the Budapest Open Access Initiative of 2002. A second major international initiative, dating from 2003, is the Berlin Declaration on Open Access to Knowledge in the Sciences and Humanities.

There are two roads to open access (OA), with many variations.

  1. In open access publishing, also known as the "golden" road to OA, journals make their articles openly accessible immediately on publication by publication in an open access journal Examples of open access publishers are BioMed Central and the Public Library of Science.
  2. In open access self-archiving, also called the "green" road to OA, authors make copies of their own published articles openly accessible, generally in a subject or institutional repository.

Open access is the subject of much discussion amongst academics, librarians, university administrators, and government officials at the moment. There is substantial misunderstanding of the concept of open access, along with much debate and discussion about the economics of funding an open access scholarly communications system.


The term open access has been used in many ways. It has been proposed to break the term into the following components.[1]

Gratis Open access

Gratis open access indicates there are no financial barriers to access to a copy of an article.

Libre open access

Libre open access indicates there are no barriers to reuse of the contents of an article, other than the optional requirements of attribution and share-alike.

Authors and researchers

Scholars have traditionally "given away" their work inasmuch as they are not usually paid directly for publishable research and writing on a per item basis. They are paid by research funders and/or their universities to do research; the published article is the report of the work they have done, not an item for commercial gain. The more the article is used, cited, applied and built-upon, the better for research[3] as well as for the researcher's career.[4] Increasingly, authors are being asked to make their works openly accessible by research funders, such as the U.S. National Institutes of Health, and the Wellcome Trust, as well as by their universities.[5]

Authors who wish to make their work openly accessible have a number of options. One of the options (gold) is publishing in an open access journal. One way to find an OA journal is to check the Directory of Open Access Journals (DOAJ). The DOAJ is far from complete, due to the processing time for verifying journal quality and open access policies, so it may be worthwhile asking other publishers whether they might have OA options available. Open J-Gate [6], a service launched in early 2006 in India, is another index to articles published in English language OA journals. Out of 3,500+ journals indexed by Open J-Gate, around 2,000 are peer-reviewed. Open J-Gate has provision for limiting the search to peer-reviewed journals only.

An open access journal may, or may not, charge a processing fee; although many minor ones are subsidized, almost all major ones of international reach do require payment. Traditionally, many academic journals levied page charges, long before open access became a possibility. Recent research[7] has shown that most OA journals do not charge processing fees, and are actually less likely to charge author fees than traditional subscription-based journals. When OA journals do charge processing fees, it is the author's employer or research funder who typically pays the fee, not the individual author, and the journals will often waive the fee in cases of financial hardship.

The second option (green) is author self-archiving. To find out if a publisher has given its green light to author self-archiving, the author can check the Publisher Copyright Policies and Self-Archiving list[8] on the SHERPA web site. To find out by journal, the author can check the Self-Archiving Policy By Journal.[9] A self-archiving wiki designed to help faculty understand and start doing it, has been set up by Ari Friedman.[10] There is also a self-archiving FAQ.[11] Extensive details and links can also be found in the Open Access Archivangelism blog[12] and the Eprints Open Access site.[13]

There are also important differences between scholarly/scientific and other types of works:

Open access includes both the authors' general agreement to a work's free distribution and the implementation of a suitable (technical) infrastructure that allows for such a distribution. (This comes with the territory when a full-text is made freely accessible on the web.) In contrast, the idea of open content is sometimes assumed to include the general permission to modify a given work; open access mainly refers to free availability without any further implications. Indeed, many open access projects are concerned with scientific publishing -- an area where it is quite reasonable to keep a work's content static and to associate it with a fixed author.

One of the reasons why attribution is important in scholarly endeavours is the notion of certification (see Rick Johnson's The Future of Scholarly Communications in the Humanities: Transformation or Adaption.[14]) It is essential to the career of an academic to be credited as being the first to have discovered or proved something. Unlike artistic works, where modifications and variations can easily enhance the value of the work, or, at worst, result in a lower quality version of a work, modification in scholarly works could potentially have serious consequences. For example, one should probably not change the procedures for a surgical technique, unless one happens to be a qualified, answerable surgeon. For these two reasons, it attribution and no modification are likely to become standard for academic articles.

While open access is currently focussing on the scholarly research article, of course any creator who wishes to do so can share their work openly, and decide which rights they would like to make available to everyone. Creative Commons provides a means for authors to easily indicate which permission the author would like to allow, readable by either humans or machines.

While universities, libraries, and funding agencies all have their own reasons to advance open access, only authors can make it happen. The reason is that authors decide whether to submit their work to open-access journals, whether to deposit it in open-access repositories, and whether to transfer copyright. Hence, a growing strategy is for institutions in a position to influence author decisions, especially universities and funding agencies, to adopt policies encouraging or requiring authors to provide OA to their work. For authors not under the influence of such policies, it's critical to understand the benefits of open access, especially the way it increases citation impact[15], and the compatibility of OA archiving with publishing in non-OA journals.


For the most part, the main users of research articles are other researchers. Open access helps researchers as readers by opening up access to articles that their libraries do not subscribe to. One of the great beneficiaries of open access may be developing countries, where there are currently some universities with no journal subscriptions at all - although schemes exist for providing scientific publications to developing countries for little or no cost.[16] All researchers benefit, however, as no library can afford to subscribe to every scientific journal and most can only afford a small fraction of them.[17] Open access extends the reach of research beyond academe. An OA article can be read by anyone - a professional in the field, a journalist, a politician or civil servant, or an interested hobbyist.

For anyone interested in exploring the world of scholarly research, a good place to start is The Directory of Open Access Journalsoffers a list of most peer-reviewed, fully open access scientific journals, and permits a search for articles in many of the journals. Open access articles can also often be found with a web search, using any general search engine or those specialized for the scholarly/scientific literature, such as oaister,[18] citebase,[19] citeseer,[20] scirus,[21] and Google Scholar.[22]

Results may include preprints that have not gone through the quality control process of peer-review (or even gray literature that never will).

Research funders and universities

Research funding agencies and universities want to ensure that the research they fund and support in various ways has the greatest possible research impact (citation impact).

Research funders are beginning to expect open access to the research they have funded. For example, the world's two largest funders in medical research are asking researchers to provide an open access version of the research they have funded. These policies are quite new, and apply to new grantees, so the results will appear slowly but surely. The U.S. National Institute of Health's Public Access Policy[23] took effect May 2005. The Wellcome Trusts' Position Statement in Support of Open and Unrestricted Access to Published Research[24] took effect October 2005. The U.S. NIH's policy is not mandatory,[25] because it requests rather than requires self-archiving, allows for an embargo (delay) period of up to one year, and stipulates self-archiving only in PubMed Central rather than in the author's own institutional repository, from which it can then be harvested. The Wellcome Trust's position is somewhat stronger and less ambiguous (requiring self-archiving within 6 months, but again only centrally). The CURES Act, if adopted, would require immediate deposit (but still centrally, and allowing a 6-month delay). Despite the embargos, however, these policies were worthwhile first steps--but they are not open access.

Other research funders are in the process of reviewing their policies, with a view to maximizing research impact. One of the most notable developments in this area is the Research Council UK's (RCUK's) proposed policy on Access to Research Outputs.[26] If RCUK requires immediate self-archiving, about half of the research produced at UK universities will become open access, through their institutional repositories. What is especially important about this initiative is that it covers all disciplines, not just biomedicine, as with the two health funding agencies.

Another example is Canada's Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council,[27] which made a commitment to open access in October 2004, and launched a nation-wide consultation process[28] to "transform the Council so that it can better support researchers and ensure that Canadians benefit directly from their investment in research and scholarship". This marks a clearer emphasis on the value of the research to the public, as opposed to just the research community, than is seen in other such initiatives (but it has not yet led to a concrete policy proposal).

Individual universities too are beginning to adapt policies requiring that their researcher employees provide open access, and are developing institutional repositories in which published articles can be deposited. Eprints maintains a very helpful Registry of OA Repository Material Archiving Policies (ROARMAP).[29]

In May 2005, 16 major Dutch universities cooperatively launched DAREnet, the Digital Academic Repositories, making over 47 000 research papers available to anyone with internet access. The repository now holds in excess of 69 000 articles [30].

In April 2006, the European Commission "Study on the Economic and Technical Evolution of the Scientific Publication Markets in Europe" recommended:

  • EC RECOMMENDATION A1: "Research funding agencies... should [e]stablish a European policy mandating published articles arising from EC-funded research to be available after a given time period in open access archives..."

In May 2006, the US Federal Research Public Access Act (FRPAA) made a move toward correcting the NIH Public Access Policy:

  1. FRPAA self-archiving is no longer requested but mandated.
  2. The absolute time limit on the FRPAA self-archiving is no longer at most 12 months from publication but at most 6.
  3. FRPAA no longer stipulates that the self-archiving must be central: the deposit can now be in the author's own Institutional Repository (IR).
  4. Self-archiving is no longer just for biomedical sciences, but for the full FRPAA spectrum of major US-funded research, in all funded fields.

To remove the FRPAA's (and EC's) sole remaining embargo allowance (of up to 6 months), they would have to mandate that all articles must be deposited immediately upon acceptance for publication: the only allowable delay, if any, would be in the moment when access to the deposit is set to Open Access (not in the moment when it is deposited). This allows authors to use their IRs' new "email eprint" button to provide immediate email access for all would-be users during any delay period: Eprints version; Dspace version.

Public and advocacy

Open access to scholarly research is important to the public, for a number of reasons. One of the arguments for public access to the scholarly literature is that most of it is paid for by taxpayers, who have a right to access the results of what they have funded. This is the reason for the creation of advocacy groups such as The Alliance for Taxpayer Access in the US.[31] For example, people might wish to read the scholarly literature when they or a family member have an illness. Many people also have serious hobbies; e.g. there are so many serious amateur astronomers in the world, that if the world were to be hit with a comet, it would probably be one of these amateurs who would alert us. Then, too, there are Wikipedia writers and editors working to hone their articles.

Even those who do not care to read scholarly articles, however, benefit indirectly from open access. Even if you don't want to read medical journals, for example, you would probably prefer that your doctor and other health care professionals had access to them. Open access speeds research progress and productivity: every researcher in the world can read an article, not just those whose library can afford to subscribe to the particular journal it appears in. Faster discoveries benefit everyone. High school and junior college students can gain the information literacy skills which are so critical for the knowledge age.

In developing nations, open access archiving and publishing acquire a unique importance. Scientists, health care professionals, and institutions in developing nations often do not have the capital necessary to access scholarly literature, although schemes exist to give them access for little or no cost (see above).

Due to these benefits of open access, many governments are considering whether to mandate open access to publicly funded research. However, some organizations representing publishers, such as the DC Principles group in the United States, feel that such mandates are an unwarranted governmental intrusion in the publishing marketplace. Much advocacy is taking place on both sides of this issue.

In 2009, the Fair Copyright in Research Works Act (H. R. 801) was proposed to increase access to scientific publications in academic journals and scientific journals.

Libraries and librarians

Librarians are among the most vocal and active of open access advocates, because access to information is one of the central tenets of the profession. Open access promises to remove both the price barriers and the permission barriers that undermine library efforts to provide access to the journal literature.[32]. Many library associations have either signed major open access declarations, or created their own. For example, the Canadian Library Association, in June 2004, endorsed a Resolution on Open Access.[33] Librarians educate faculty, administrators, and others about the benefits of open access. For example, the Association of College and Research Libraries of the American Library Association has developed a Scholarly Communications Toolkit.[34] The Association of Research Libraries has documented the need for increased access to scholarly information, and was a leading founder of the Scholarly Publishing and Research Coalition (SPARC).[35]

At many universities, the library is the home of the institutional repository, where authors self-archive their papers. For example, the Canadian Association of Research Libraries has an ambitious program[36] to develop institutional repositories at all Canadian university libraries. Some libraries are publishing journals, such as the Journal of Insect Science[37] at the University of Wisconsin Library, or hosting and/or providing technical support for journals.

Many are working to promote open access materials, through links on library web pages, including open access journals in library catalogues, and/or setting up automated searching for open access items, along with library paid resources. Some librarians are not in favour of full open access, as existing library funding for publication subscriptions may be removed or transferred to fund the running of the institutional repository.

Publishers and publishing

There are many different publishers, and types of publisher, in academia; for more information, see academic publishing. Reactions of existing publishers to open access journal publishing have ranged from moving with enthusiasm to a new open access business model, to experiments with providing as much free or open access as possible, to active lobbying against open access proposals. There are many new publishers starting up as open access publishers, with the Public Library of Science being the best-known example.

Probably the earliest book publisher to provide open access was the National Academies Press, publisher for the National Academy of Sciences, Institute of Medicine, and other arms of the National Academies. They have provided free online full-text editions of their books alongside priced, printed editions since 1994, and assert that the online editions promote sales of the print editions. As of June 2006 they had 3600+ books up online for browsing, searching, and reading.

Free, open source software for open access journal publishing is available for those wishing to start up new journals, for example, the Open Journal Systems (OJS)[38] developed by the Public Knowledge Project[39] and HyperJournal[40] developed by volunteers, but now partially funded by the political science faculty of Pisa University[41]. While OJS and HyperJournal are designed for academic publishing, they can be used by anyone; there is a group of grade 8 girls in Vancouver, British Columbia, who use OJS to publish their own peer-reviewed journal.

Publishers in developing countries can contact Bioline International[42] for free assistance in setting up electronic publishing. Bioline International's mandate is to reduce the South to North knowledge gap, by helping publishers in developing countries to make their work more accessible through electronic, open access publishing, as well as helping to see that articles are included in the appropriate subject indexes.

Free, open source software is also available for those wishing to start up institutional repositories. The Budapest Open Access Initiative has a review[43] of nine of the open-source archiving packages.

Over 90% of journals have already given their green light to author/institution self-archiving.[44]


The roots of the concept of open access can be found in the distant past, from the very beginnings of publishing, re-emerging with every innovation in publishing technology. The printing press allowed the written word to be printed and distributed, thereby extending literacy to the population at large. Moving from vellum to paper made it possible to print more cheaply. The invention of the postal system provided a means of widespread distribution. The beginnings of the scholarly journal were a way of expanding low-cost access to scholarly findings. Many individuals anticipated the open access concept long before the technology made it possible. One early proponent was the physicist Leo Szilard: to help stem the flood of low-quality publications, he jokingly suggested in the 1940s that at the beginning of his career each scientist should be issued with 100 vouchers to pay for his papers. Closer to our own day, but still ahead of its time, was Common Knowledge. This was an attempt to share information for the good of all, the brainchild of Brower Murphy, formerly of The Library Corporation. Brower and Common Knowledge are recognised in the Library Microcomputer Hall of Fame.[45]

The modern open access movement springs from the potential unleashed by the electronic medium, and by the world wide web. It is now possible to publish a scholarly article and also make it instantly accessible anywhere in the world where there are computers and internet connections. The fixed cost of producing the article is separable from the minimal marginal cost of the maximized online distribution.

These new possibilities emerged at a time when the traditional, print-based scholarly journals system was in a crisis. The number of journals and articles produced has been increasing at a steady rate; however the average cost per journal has been rising at a rate far above inflation for decades, and budgets at academic libraries have remained fairly static. The result was decreased access - ironically, just when technology has made almost unlimited access a very real possibility, for the first time. Libraries and librarians have played an important part in the open access movement, initially by alerting faculty and administrators to the serials crisis. The Association of Research Libraries developed the Scholarly Publishing and Academic Resources Coalition (SPARC), in 1997, an alliance of academic and research libraries and other organizations, to address the crisis and develop and promote alternatives, such as open access.

Like the world wide web itself, the open access movement is best understood as a global phenomenon. The new potential of the technology, and the serials crisis, were happening around the world. Leaders in the open access movement emerged from many different places: the U.S., the UK, India, Latin America, Eastern Europe, and Canada, to name a few. Even though open access is still in its infancy, a full history would be book length, at least. Following is a selected history, meant to give a sense of overall developments rather than to detail even all the most important developments.

Many open access projects involve collaborations by people around the world, both expected and unexpected. For example the Scientific Electronic Library Online,[46] or Scielo, is a comprehensive approach to full open access journal publishing, involving a number of Latin American countries. Bioline International is a not-for-profit organization dedicated to helping publishers in developing countries. Bioline is a collaboration of people in the UK, Canada, and Brazil; the Bioline International Software is used around the world. RePEc, or Research Papers in Economics, is a collaborative effort of over 100 volunteers in 45 countries, ranging from the U.S. to the United Arab Emirates, from Slovenia to South Korea. The Public Knowledge Project in Canada developed the open source publishing software Open Journal Systems (OJS), which is now is use around the world, for example by the African Journals Online[47] group, and one of the most active development groups is Portuguese.

The first free scientific online archive is, started in 1991, initially a preprint service for physicists, initiated by Paul Ginsparg. Self-archiving has become the norm in physics, with some sub-areas of physics, such as high-energy physics, having a 100% self-archiving rate. The prior existence of a "preprint culture" in high-energy physics is one major reason why arXiv has been successful.[48] arXiv now includes papers from related disciplines, such as computer science and mathematics, but computer scientists mostly self-archive on their own websites and have been doing so for even longer than physicists. (Citeseer is a computer science archive that harvests, Google-style, from distributed computer science websites and institutional repositories and contains almost twice as many papers as arxiv.) arXiv now includes postprints as well as preprints.[49] The two major physics publishers (American Physical Society and Institute of Physics Publishing[50]) report that arXiv has had no effect[51] on journal subscriptions in physics; even though the articles are freely available, usually before publication, physicists value their journals and continue to support them.

The inventors of the Internet and the Web -- computer scientists -- had been self-archiving on their own FTP sites and then their websites since even earlier than the physicists, as was revealed when Citeseer began harvesting their papers in the late 1990s. The 1994 "Subversive Proposal"[52] was to extend self-archiving to all other disciplines; from it arose CogPrints (1997) and eventually the OAI-compliant generic GNU software in 2000.[53]

Another early pioneer in the self-archiving approach to open access was the late Dr Tarikere Basappa Rajashekar, former Associate Chairman of the National Centre for Science Information (NCSI) at the Indian Institute of Science, Bangalore, India, who played an important part in the development and filling of the Indian Institute of Science's eprints@IISC.[54]

In 1997, the U.S. National Library of Medicine made Medline, the most comprehensive index to medical literature on the planet, freely available. Usage of Medline increased a hundred fold when Medline became free, strongly suggesting that prior limits on usage were indeed impacted by lack of access. While indexes are not the main focus of the open access movement, free Medline is important in that it opened up a whole new form of use of research literature - by the public, not just professionals.

In 1998, one of the first Open Access journals in medicine, the Journal of Medical Internet Research (JMIR)[55] was created, publishing its first issue in 1999. This journal was created by researchers for researchers, without involvement of any commercial publishers, and with practically no budget.

The [56] was founded in 1998 (originally called the "September98 Forum").

In 2001, 34,000 scholars around the world signed "An Open Letter to Scientific Publishers",[57] calling for "the establishment of an online public library that would provide the full contents of the published record of research and scholarly discourse in medicine and the life sciences in a freely accessible, fully searchable, interlinked form". Scientists signing the letter also pledged not to publish in or peer-review for non-open access journals. This led to the establishment of the Public Library of Science, an advocacy organization. However, few scientists were actually walking the talk and most continued to publish and review for non-open access journals. PLoS decided to become an open access publisher aiming to compete at the high quality end of the scientific spectrum with commercial publishers and other open access journals, which were beginning to flourish. Critics have argued that, equipped with a $10 million grant, PLoS competes with smaller OA journals for the best submissions and runs danger to destroy what it originally wanted to foster.

In 2002, the Open Society Institute launched the Budapest Open Access Initiative. In 2003, the Berlin Declaration on Open Access to Knowledge in the Sciences and Humanities was drafted and the World Summit on the Information Society included open access in its Declaration of Principles and Plan of Action.

The idea of mandating self-archiving was mooted at least as early as 1998.[58] Since 2003[59] efforts of one particular group of open access proponents have been focused on open access mandating by the funders of research: governments,[60] research funding agencies,[61] and universities.[62]

These efforts have been fought by the publishing industry.

However, many countries, funders, universities and other organizations have now either made commitments to open access, or are in the process of reviewing their policies and procedures, with a view to opening up access to results of the research they are responsible for.

In 2005, the world's two largest funders of medical researchers, the United States National Institute of Health and the United Kingdom's Wellcome Trust, adopted policies with, respectively, a recommendation and a requirement to provide open access to the results of successful grantees. Articles are to placed in a central medicine-specific repository, either the U.S. PubMed Central or a UK central repository, when this is available.

For more on the history of open access, see Peter Suber's "Timeline of the Open Access Movement",[63] and the Public Library of Science. One of the many librarians who have been leaders in the self-archiving approach to open access is Hélène Bosc; her work can be found in her "15-year retrospective".[64] Richard Poynder, a freelance journalist, contributes to a blog on open access, "Open and Shut?". He has written a series of interviews with a few of the leaders of the open access movement. One example (October 2004) is a 10-year review[65] of Stevan Harnad's "Subversive Proposal".

Does open access improve dissemination?

Impact factor

One motivation for making an article openly accessible is research impact. Since Lawrence's methodologically weak (no adjustment for confounders) cross-sectional study first suggested that Open Access improves citation impact in the domain of computing science[2], a few studies have confirmed, with variable rigor and methodology, that an open access article is more likely to be used and cited. [3] A recent landmark paper in PLoS Biology showed, using a longitudinal design adjusting for confounders using multivariate regression that articles published in an Open Access journal (Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences: PNAS) are three times more likely to be cited than non-Open Access papers[4].

Other studies

In a randomized controlled trial in which articles from 11 journals were randomly assigned to open versus subscription access, open access was found after one year to increase downloads of the article, but not to increase citations to the open access articles.[5]

This trial and additional observational studies have been aggregated in a meta-analysis.[6]

Open access projects

Some of the most important open access projects are listed on the Catalogs subpage. However, the increasing number of high quality journals and sites adhering to the principle of open access can (currently) not be reflected by this page, though further information is provided by the External Links subpage.


  1. Peter Suber, SPARC Open Access Newsletter, 8/2/08.
  2. Lawrence S (May 2001). "Free online availability substantially increases a paper's impact". Nature 411 (6837): 521. DOI:10.1038/35079151. PMID 11385534. Research Blogging.
  3. [1]
  4. Eysenbach G. Citation Advantage of Open Access Articles. PLoS Biol. 2006;4(5) p. e157. [2])
  5. Davis, Philip M; Bruce V Lewenstein, Daniel H Simon, James G Booth, Mathew J L Connolly (2008-07-31). "Open access publishing, article downloads, and citations: randomised controlled trial". BMJ 337 (jul31_1): a568. DOI:10.1136/bmj.a568. Retrieved on 2008-07-31. Research Blogging. Commentary at the Scholarly Kitchen
  6. Swan, A. (2010) The Open Access citation advantage: Studies and results to date. Technical Report UNSPECIFIED, School of Electronics & Computer Science, University of Southampton.