How open can Open Access be?

I’ve joined the movement to make research freely accessible to the public — research published in this fashion is said to be Open Access.

This is not as clear-cut as it sounds, though: over the years, many different flavours of Open Access have arisen. When working to achieve something it is a good idea to set clear goals. Therefore, in this article, I will compare the openness of different options available when publishing an article as Open Access, and which of these options I would consider preferable.

Self-archived vs. published

In traditional, subscription-based journals, authors sign over their copyright on their articles to the publisher. One result of this is that only the publisher gets to decide where the article can be made available. In other words: the author is not allowed to post their research to their social media profiles, their personal website, or anywhere else, without the publisher’s approval.

Thus, one of the weakest forms of Open Access is when the publisher allows the author to distribute their research elsewhere, in addition to it being available for a fee through the subscription journal. When an author makes use of this privilege, it is called Green Open Access. Often, this right is limited to so-called preprints, i.e. the author’s draft of an article that has not yet been peer-reviewed.

The counterpart of Green Open Access is Gold Open Access, in which the journal itself makes the article available free of charge. Since there is less effort involved in accessing and using research published in this manner, I consider Gold Open Access to be preferable over Green.

Embargo vs. immediate publication

Even if an article is to be made freely available, it is not necessarily the case that that happens immediately after publication.

Often, publishers will place an embargo on articles they publish. This means that for some amount of time after the article is first published, the article is only available for a fee through the publisher, and only after that can it be made freely available. Usually, such an embargo lasts anywhere from six months to two years.

Embargoes are a compromise that makes it more likely for publishers to be able to sell subscriptions to their journals, while eventually making the article openly accessible. While this is understandable from the publisher’s point of view, if the goal is to drive down subscription costs and increase access to research, then measures that aim to maintain subscription income and delay access to research are not the most obvious measures to take. Hence, immediate Open Access publication is more desirable than embargoes, in my book.

Gratis vs. libre

Although an article could be free of charge to read (gratis), restrictions might still apply to other things people might want to do with it. For example, one might want to:

  • Bundle and share it together with related articles
  • Find patterns in research output through Text Mining
  • Translate the article to a different language

An article that is free from other restrictions as well as being free to read is referred to as libre; such articles are de facto licensed using a Creative Commons license.

(As an aside: my posts here use such a license as well, so you’re free to use them as you please as long as you refer back here.)

An important reason to fund research is that it is often useful to society. As such, I think it’s best to avoid restricting how people can best put the research to good use.

Paid vs. free publishing

With traditional, subscription-based journals, readers pay fees that enable them to read the journal’s articles. These revenues are removed when articles are published as Open Access, so publishers will want to find other ways to recoup the publishing costs and to earn a profit. A common way to do so is to charge so-called Article Processing Charges, which are paid by the authors rather than the readers of an article.

When neither the readers nor the authors have to pay, this is sometimes referred to as Diamond Open Access.

Since research can only be useful when people can access the results, I think it makes sense to some extent to consider publication costs part of the cost of doing research. However, that does mean that a smaller part of research budgets is available for the actual research, and especially with “prestigious” journals charging higher APCs than less prestigious ones, this leads to a greater gap in the ability to do research between wealthy and less wealthy institutions. We should therefore aim to keep APCs as low as possible, and preferably remove them altogether.

Hybrid vs. full Open Access journals

Although individual articles might be published Open Access, that doesn’t mean that the entire journal they’re in is Open Access as well. Sometimes, subscription-based journals offer the option for authors to pay a fee to make their specific articles openly accessible, after which that specific article can be accessed free of charge through e.g. the journal’s website. This helps the author comply with open access requirements by their funder, and enables the publisher to keep charging for subscriptions to the journal.

Theoretically, this should also drive the costs of the subscriptions down: if half of a journal’s articles is available free of charge anyway, it makes less sense to pay for the remaining half. However, since journal subscriptions are often bought in bulk, and since publishers negotiate individual prices with different institutions, behind closed doors, it is practically impossible to find out whether this is actually the case.

My goal is that nobody will have to pay fees to access the results of public research ever again, so as far as I am concerned, all journals go full Open Access.

So what‘s it going to be?

In a perfect world, all research is immediately available, free of charge, for everyone to do with as they please, without the authors having had to pay for it.

That said, all mentioned variants exist because there are many stakeholders involved in the scientific publishing process, and not all their stakes align with the goal of making research as widely available as possible. And even though I consider e.g. publisher profits to be of secondary importance to the benefits full Open Access provides to society in general, I do realise that the costs of publishing will need to be covered somewhere.

Thus, I think that we should strive to get as close to the situation described above as possible, but to do so in a sustainable way that benefits us all in both the short and the long term.

Which flavour do you prefer, and which benefits and drawbacks did I miss? Let me know via Twitter or at — I would love to learn from you.

I’m trying to find out how best to open up access to scientific articles. Sign up for the mailinglist or follow Flockademic on Twitter to join me on the journey.