Open Access: An Introduction

by Keith G Jeffery

Open Access (OA) means that electronic scholarly articles are available freely at the point of use. The subject has been discussed for over 10 years, but has reached a crescendo of discussion over the last few years with various declarations in favour of OA from groups of researchers or their representatives. The UK House of Commons Science and Technology Committee considered the issue in 2004, reporting in the summer in favour of OA. This indicates the importance of the issue, and led to statements from large research funding bodies such as the Welcome Trust and the Research Councils UK.

Ethics: There is an ethical argument that research funded by the public should be available to the public. Since research is an international activity, this crosses national boundaries.

Research Impact: The Internet provides an opportunity. Modern harvesting techniques and search engines make it possible to discover publications of relevance if they are deposited in an OA repository with a particular metadata standard. If all authors did this then the world of research would be available 'at the fingertips'. There is evidence that articles available in an OA repository have more accesses (readers), citations and therefore impact.
Costs: There is concern over the hindrance to research caused by the cost of journal subscriptions, whether electronic or paper. These costs run well above the rate of inflation with the result that libraries with restricted budgets (ie all of them!) are no longer providing many journals needed by researchers.

Just reward: There is also concern that in traditional scholarly publishing, most of the work (authoring, reviewing, editing) is done freely by the community and that the publishers make excessive profits from the actual publishing (making available) process. In conventional publishing, the institution subscribes to the publication channel to obtain electronic access or paper copies.

Types of Open Access
At this stage it is important to distinguish several dimensions of the issue: OA can be delivered in two ways:

The 'green' route makes publications available freely in parallel with any publication system but is not, itself, publishing. The 'gold' route is one example of electronic publishing. At present it is much more common to have non-OA electronic access to publications in a publisher's database for a subscription fee.

The second dimension to be distinguished is the timing and quality aspect: preprints are pre-peer-review articles, postprints are post-peer-review and post-publication articles while eprints can be either but in electronic form.

A third dimension is white/grey literature. White literature is peer-reviewed, published articles while grey is preprints or internal 'know-how' material. Of course there are usually many interesting relationships between grey and white articles (see Table).

Dimensions of Open Access publishing.
Dimensions of Open Access publishing.

Barriers to Open Access
Loss of publisher income: The major objection to 'green' self-archiving comes from publishers and learned societies (many of which depend on subscriptions to their publications) who fear that 'green' OA threatens their business viability. To date there is no evidence that 'green' archiving harms the business model of publishing. There is evidence that 'green' archiving increases utilisation, citation and impact of a publication. Whilst the major commercial publishers provide additional value-added services that could offset the impact of OA on current business models, the impact on learned societies may require new business models to be developed.

Copyright: Copyright agreements between authors and publishers may inhibit the 'green' route. However, to date, between 80 and 90% of publication channels (the variability depends on exactly what is counted) allow 'green' author deposit although some insist on an embargo period before the publication is available for OA. In contrast some publishers of journals - of which 'Nature' is the most well-known - do not demand copyright from the author but merely a licence to publish, leaving copyright with the author or their institution.

Green Open Access Repositories
There are two kinds of 'green' OA repository:

Advantages of Open Access
The major advantage of OA is research impact - the available e-article is likely to have more accesses, citations and impact. However, there are additional advantages:

A Word of Warning
Digitally-created articles rely heavily on both the metadata record and the articles themselves being deposited. International metadata standards and protocols must be applied to repositories so that harvesting across repositories can take place. To ensure that research output material is available for future generations, curation and preservation issues must be addressed.

Speculation: Future
Looking to the future speculatively, it is possible to imagine 'green' OA repositories becoming commonplace and used heavily. At that point, some argue, one could change the business model so that an author deposits in an open access 'green' repository but instead of submitting in parallel to a journal or conference peer-review process, the peer-review is done either by:

The former peer-review mechanism would maintain learned societies in business, would still cost the institution of the author or the author but would probably be less expensive than publisher subscriptions or 'gold' (author or author institution pays) open access. The latter is much more adventurous and in the spirit of the internet; in a charming way it somehow recaptures the scholarly process of two centuries ago (initial draft, open discussion, revision and publication) in a modern world context. It is this possible future that is feared by commercial publishers.

The author has benefited from discussions over many years with key people in OA. This short article has benefited from discussions with Heather Weaver of CCLRC.

Please contact:
Keith G. Jeffery, Director IT, CCLRC and ERCIM president


Background Documents on OA


Policies, Registries and Directories

JISC surveys of international author Open Access

Copyright status of publishers

OA citation impact

Effect of OA on Journal Subscriptions

Repositories / Systems