The Opinion Piece: Open Access

In the second of The Opinion Piece series, editorial intern Joe Davies looks at Open Access, and explores the issues on both sides of the discussion.


Even mentioning the term `Open Access’ is enough to elicit a response in much of the scientific community. Heads turn and ears open to see what you will say next, lips poised to respond to the opinion of the day. This seems strange; scientists are trained to consider ideas in a measured and calculated way, so why then does this debate cause such an emotional response? 

Here I’d like to dispel as much of the heat as possible from the discussion surrounding open access, and give a more considered approach to something that has entire departments up in arms. What is open access? How did it all start and where is it going?


How did it begin?

Open access has its origins in declarations made in the early 2000s by multiple different organizations. The first was in 2002 by The Budapest Open Access Initiative, a collective of academics and scientific communicators that wanted to remove access barriers for literature. Their work was continued in 2003 by two statements: the Bethesda Statement on Open Access Publishing and the Berlin Declaration on Open Access Publishing brought together hundreds of individuals involved in a wide array of disciplines in the hope of providing a proper legal definition of open access, and to enable greater transparency and interactivity of future, web-based research.

The main driving force for the early movement was that many academics and individuals in the scientific community were frustrated with how difficult and expensive it could be to get access to papers.


What is Open Access?

Open access refers to research that is distributed free of cost, subscriptions or other potential barriers to the reader. Open access concerns itself with removing both permissions and pricing barriers to research1. With respect to permissions there are two levels:

  1. Gratis – papers are available to access and read.
  2. Libre – gratis, but with additional re-use rights, e.g. to redistribute.2


Both of these types of open access remove pricing barriers3 but only libre removes all permission barriers. As such, libre is harder to implement, simply because it is more difficult to recoup costs from it for the individuals writing or publishing the paper; but, as the Budapest Open Access Initiative acknowledged in 2012:4

`We should not delay achieving gratis in order to achieve libre, and we should not stop with gratis when we can achieve libre’


There are generally also various levels of gratis open access available. These can include5:

  1. Green – authors self-publish their work on their own website or their institution’s repository. This can also include public forms of publishing, like libraries. These can also be uploaded to journals that offer green open access, but publication may undergo an embargo period where the paper cannot be downloaded by non-subscribers until some time has passed (usually a few months). After this period the paper is freely available to anyone.
  2. Gold – the author or institution that wrote the paper has to pay a fee to the journal which covers the handling costs associated with the paper (review, copy-editing, storage etc). Here, copyright can be retained by the author but free access is immediate, with no embargo, and the journal distributes the article freely.

It’s important to note here that if the papers are submitted to a reputable journal, then peer review will occur for both green and gold open access publishing. However this is not necessarily true in other cases (e.g. author self-publishing).

If you think these multiple definitions and terminologies seem confusing, don’t worry because you’re not alone. The confusion may stem from the different communities that have tried to address the issue, and the different definitions used throughout the history of the movement.6,7


The For and Against for General Open Access

We’ve already touched on some of the potential pros and cons of open access but I think it would be good at this point to give a (non-exhaustive!) list of each with a little explanation:

  1. No cost to the individual wanting to read a paper – a member of the public would not have to pay to subscribe to a journal as the cost would be covered by another organization or individual (i.e. members of the public would gain direct access to raw research).
  2. Greater connectivity - a researcher could access more papers to build tools to connect ideas together without having to pay to do so. Right now you’d have to interact with all publishers for rights if you were going across multiple disciplines.
  3. Higher profile papers – generally, the more citations an academic gets, the more grant money and prestige they and their institution receive. If everyone is able to access papers freely, more papers can be cited and so people are able to increase their impact more easily.
  4. New ideas are rapidly dispersed - aids scientific progress by accelerating it.
  5. Open access means that as soon as a paper is released, it can be taught – having no restrictions on how a paper is distributed or reused means lecturers and tutors would be able to use the very latest information.
  6. Easier access - considering science research grants are paid for mostly by government spending (with some exceptions being geophysics, biomedicine etc.), the tax-payer can find it difficult to get access to papers. Abstracts can be vague and misleading as to the content of the paper. This means an individual can waste money on a paper and not get what they wanted. Open access would help eliminate this by making the papers free and easier to obtain.
  1. Quality reduction – without people paying to subscribe to a journal, the editing quality could go down as money is needed to pay for it. Editors have to be employed, servers have to be maintained and buildings to house all of this need to be paid for, all of which makes for a hefty bill to the publishers.
  2. Fees for gold open access are paid by the author, funder or institution the author belongs to – the Article Processing Charge (APC) for some gold open access journals can be in the thousands of pounds and is charged per paper submitted for publishing. If the author or institution doesn’t think the impact of the paper is worth the costs then they may not pay for open access. This could well mean that the gold model is not a feasible replacement for the traditional model, given that someone does ultimately need to pay for the work.
  3. Article processing charges can lead to predatory publishers – since 2009 some publishers have emerged that exploit this fee by setting up publishing operations with dozens of titles of broad scope. They then use spam emails to get manuscript submissions and have a non-rigorous peer review process, or none at all. They make a lot of money from the article processing charges for submissions and accept practically any paper. This can have real ramifications when it comes to news outlets justifying and spreading misinformation.
  4. Bias against the underfunded – the publication of papers and how well those papers do has always been about merit not money. Open access could mean that this is not the case as those facilities that cannot afford to pay the article processing charge (for example, those in less economically developed countries) won’t be able to share their research, leading to a new barrier being created, and hindering discovery and progress.


The Opinion Piece

Idealistically, I like open access. The notion that we could increase the speed and scope of dissemination of ideas is something I definitely support, however I am also someone that values proper, well-funded and critiqued research. It seems that one does not support the other because of one glaring problem: who pays for free ideas? By this I mean that I think we would all like free access to scientific research, but someone has to pay for the editing, the servers and any other overheads that come with the process.

In my opinion the best course of action would be green open access, i.e. with an embargo period that could be overcome with some kind of subscription fee. This would mean that institutions would still be able to get instant access to the papers and use them as they see fit, but the tax-payer would also be able to get access to the world of academic research. It wouldn’t be perfect: in some cases copyright could be retained by the publisher, and it does put a hold on independent researchers, but I think this overcomes most of the issues surrounding access to scientific research.