Open access (OA) refers to a publishing practice in which users are granted rights of free access to digital content. Anyone, regardless of their institutional or personal status, can read and download OA materials without charge. OA is an invention of the digital era and only feasible because of the Internet and the world wide web. These technologies make it possible to separate the fixed costs of producing an article from the marginal cost of its distribution, which is effectively zero. This separation is critical to understanding OA business models.
OA contrasts with traditional publishing practice, where the costs of bringing print or electronic products to market are offset by user-facing charges: purchasing, pay-per-use, and licensing or subscription charges borne by libraries or individuals (or membership dues, in the case of the journals published by many learned societies). As well as being granted rights of free access, OA users are normally licensed to copy, distribute, and display those materials publicly in any digital medium for any responsible purpose, subject to proper attribution.
Although use is free under an OA model, costs naturally arise in the production and quality assurance of content. A number of mechanisms are evolving to enable these costs to be defrayed. Under the currently dominant “author pays” model, upfront publication charges are met by the researcher’s funder or employer. Alternatively, OA journals may be created on a voluntary basis by scholars or librarians, who assume the publishing role for themselves. Publication costs might also be met from endowment income or from other sources, such as philanthropic or commercial sponsorship or advertising. Although the OA concept has become strongly associated with scholarly journals, there is no reason in principle why it should not apply to other digital content: books, monographs, or even broadcasting, film, and music.
OA in publishing taps into a broader set of social developments, including open source software, open licensing, and even freedom to roam, all of which seek to redraw the relationship between capital and the rights of the individual. OA has also coincided with an alleged affordability crisis on the part of many libraries, leading to a negative cycle of journal cancellations, reduced subscription bases, and higher prices.
A powerful OA advocacy movement comprising academics, research funders, librarians, and politicians has emerged in response, galvanized by major international statements (notably the Budapest Open Access Initiative and the Berlin Declaration). Two key principled arguments are frequently marshaled by OA advocates. The first is that toll restrictions limit the circulation of knowledge and thus act as a brake on research and new discoveries. The second is that taxpayers have a vested interest in the outputs of the research that they have funded and should therefore have rights of access. Other, more tactical, arguments are deployed, often invoking research that demonstrates a positive relationship between OA and a higher citation impact (Lawrence 2001; Eysenbach 2006). Early research on usage does not show the same impact (Nicholas et al. 2007).
OA journals are a source of considerable confusion and misunderstanding. It follows from the definition above that OA is fundamentally a legal and economic construct, not a particular technology. Neither should the OA concept be confused with peer review, nor indeed with any other value-added publishing function. OA journals may be produced to the highest possible standards of peer review and attract high impact factors (some of the titles published by BioMed Central fall into this category), or they may not. They may invest considerable effort in copyediting, presentation, and site navigability, or they may not. In this respect, editorial standards are independent of the notion of OA, and these journals span the full quality range, from the lamentable to the indispensable, just as traditional titles do.
OA journals are generally assigned into two broad categories: “gold” and “green.” Gold journals normally undertake full peer review and in most respects are indistinguishable from traditional (toll access or “white”) journals, except that they grant free rights of access to their content. The green road to OA refers to a set of arrangements, running in parallel with tolled access journals, whereby researchers archive a copy of their article (but normally only a preprint, the pre-peer reviewed manuscript) in an OA institutional or subject repository, often maintained by professional librarians using open source software products like D-Space.
OA is a disruptive technology with very considerable potential to reshape the scholarly communication environment. It is not, therefore, surprising that many of the claims of the OA movement are not entirely accepted by learned society and commercial publishers (Robinson 2006). Central to their concerns are serious doubts about the long-term financial viability of OA and that the journals system may become fatally destabilized as a result.
- Berlin Declaration on Open Access to Knowledge in the Sciences and Humanities (2006). At www.zim.mpg.de/openaccess-berlin/berlindeclaration.html, accessed September 1, 2006.
- Budapest Open Access Initiative (2002). At www.soros.org/openaccess/read.shtml, accessed September 1, 2006.
- Crow, R. (2002). The case for institutional repositories: A SPARC position paper. At www.arl.org/sparc/IR/ir.html, accessed September 1, 2006.
- Directory of Open Access Journals (2006). At www.doaj.org, accessed September 1, 2006.
- Eysenbach, G. (2006). Citation advantage of open access articles. PLoS Biology, 4(5), e157. At http://biology.plosjournals.org/perlserv/?request=get-document&doi=10.1371/journal.pbio.0040157, accessed September 1, 2006.
- Lawrence, S. (2001). Online or invisible? Nature, 411 (6837), 521.
- Nicholas, D., Huntington, P., & Jamali, H. R. (2007). The impact of open access publishing (and other access initiatives) on use and users of digital scholarly journals. Learned Publishing, 20(1), 11–15.
- Robinson, A. (2006). Open access: The publisher’s view. Journal of Thrombosis and Haemostasis, 4(7), 1454 –1460.
- Wellcome Trust (2000). Economic analysis of scientific research publishing: A report commissioned by the Wellcome Trust. At www.wellcome.ac.uk/assets/wtd003182.pdf, accessed September 1, 2006.