Open Access

Tuesday, 1 October 2019

Open access refers to the mechanism by which research is distributed and made available online – without any costs and without any other barriers to access.

The concept of ‘open access’ as we now understand it has its origins in the Budapest Open Access Initiative of 2002. The intent and aspirations of the initiative are worth reading as they recognise the convergence of an old tradition (scholarship) and new technologies (the internet) to create ‘unprecedented public good’. This is at the heart of open access: public good. 

In the past 17 years progress towards fully realising the aspirations of the open access initiative has been slow and incremental and the tipping point towards ‘open’ has not been reached. Nevertheless, a global open access movement persists and has opened up new ways of thinking about the scholarly communication and publication ecosystem, and fundamentally relies on the principles and values about free and open access to information – especially where that information has been publicly funded.

The many colours of open access

Responses to the positive and constructive challenge of open access have focussed on engaging with contemporary publishing and business models. The quest for open access challenges the heart of the traditional scholarly publication industry that reviews, publishes, and disseminates research outputs. The quest for full open access confronts long-standing publication models that are built around a ‘pay to read’ business model: researchers write (and review) articles that are published in scholarly publications, libraries then subscribe to these publications for their communities to read.

Some forms of open access concentrate on removing barriers created by subscription paywalls (where research outputs are only available via a subscription), and have spawned a number of ‘flavours’ or ‘colours’ of open access that sit on both sides of the legal fence:

  • Green – researcher self-archives/publishes or submits pre-print (or post-print) into an open repository.
  • Gold – researcher or institution pays a fee to a publisher to provide free immediate access for readers.
  • Bronze – freely available journal articles with no license.
  • Black – research outputs that have escaped their paywalls and are available freely but illegally.

The rainbow of colours of open access are largely a series of responses to try to fit in the principles of open access into existing publishing business models. Colourful as they are, they can divert us from the significance of open access and why it is critical to a fair, open, and democratic society.

Why is open access a Truth, Integrity, and Knowledge issue?

The overwhelming amount of content available online can mask the fact that significant swathes of true and accurate (researched) information is only accessible from behind a paywall. The easy availability of fake information can further skew the balance in favour of unreliable and unvalidated information – simply because it is available. This is a significant information hazard for a well-informed society.

Open access research is not hidden behind a paywall so it can be widely read, cited, and used to attract engagement, debate and collaboration – which are needed in a fair, open and democratic society.

For publicly funded research, being openly accessible is a critical element for transparent and defensible research. Some research comes with specific funder requirements to share knowledge to make it open and accessible, and this can include the raw data underpinning research analysis and conclusions. This enables the re-use of data, ability to build on the knowledge of others, test and validate data and research conclusions, and supports integrity in the research process.

Alongside compliance issues for publicly funded research, open access makes research more discoverable to a wider audience – including policy makers and government – resulting in increased potential for social impact of research. Add quality metadata to the picture and the discoverability of open access research is further enhanced.

Open access publications allow citizen researchers and people unaffiliated to an educational institution access to contemporary research outputs (that may otherwise be behind an institutional subscription paywall). Open access helps support freedom of access to information and resources for all.

What is your role in open access?

Libraries and librarians are champions for open access and actively support and identify open access initiatives to get true and accurate information into the hands of their readers.

The links below highlight where you can learn more, and point to resources you can use to connect people to openly accessible information. There are a number of tools and services that can help connect your readers with open access content to support their information-seeking journey, unite people in a common intellectual conversation, and advance their quest for knowledge.

Check out these open sources to get informed about open access issues: