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Open Access: Progress, Possibilities, and the Changing Scholarly Communications Ecosystem
March/April 2014 Issue

By all accounts, we’re past the tipping point with open access (OA). During the past 10 years, open access has moved from the domain of disruptive technology to an increasingly adopted approach to research dissemination. Within the publishing world, OA journals are becoming so widely accepted, even some long-established players are moving OA from the sidelines to the heart of their strategies for the future. Universities in countries around the world have passed open access policies and are incorporating OA into the way in which they capture, collect, and disseminate researcher output.

Increasing numbers of research funding organizations and national governments are pushing for public access, open access, and open data. By the numbers, open access has made great strides—a recent study conducted by Science-Metrix for the European Commission “aimed to measure the share of OA copies [of articles] available anywhere on the web, regardless of the status of the papers” (“Proportion of Open Access Peer-Reviewed Papers at the European and World Levels—2004-2011,” Eric Archambault, Didier Amyot, Philippe Descamps, Aurore Nicol, Lise Rebout, & Guillaume Roberge; _2004-2011.pdf). Their study, produced for the European Commission DG Research & Innovation, found that by the end of 2012, nearly half of all peer-reviewed, scholarly research published in 2008 was freely-available on the web in some form.

While many open access advocates continue to push for faster access, broader reuse rights, and open data in addition to peer-reviewed scholarship, in all estimations, we have indeed crossed a major milestone. Many experts, such as Lars Bjørnshauge, managing editor of the Directory of Open Access Journals (DOAJ), indicate that the global dialogue has crossed the threshold to a new stage in its evolution: Says Bjørnshauge, “We have won the discussion! Hundreds of universities, research funders and their organizations, governments, and the EU have finally realized putting research results behind paywalls doesn’t work for research, higher education, industry, innovation, wealth, health and our societies. 

Comments from Iryna Kuchma, EIFL’s open access program manager, also reflect key milestones within open access: “More and more funders [are adopting] open access policies, and this is the biggest accomplishment. The Obama administration and the U.S. Congress are developing a framework to ensure that effective policies are established to provide access to research articles and data. There are significant open access policy developments in Europe at institutional, national and international levels. The open access movement in developing and transition countries is building momentum. In the last few years, we have been heartened to see open access advocacy gaining ground with policymakers, researchers, students, and librarians, and every day, we hear reports of real change occurring on the ground.”

But even with policies springing up all over the world, a growing number of high-quality open access journals and an increasingly mature repository infrastructure, misconceptions about open access still abound. Piers Bocock, director of knowledge management and communication for the CGIAR Consortium (, works with agricultural researchers around the world and sees firsthand how researchers’ collective level of awareness could be raised. “Many [researchers] still think of open access publishing as a lower-quality, non-peer reviewed process. Current incentives reward publishing in high-impact journals, and the assumption is that those articles can’t be made open access without paying hefty author fees. But many in the open access world point to the fact that self-archiving [in open access repositories] is both legal and free of author fees.”

The need to raise awareness among researchers and to address misconceptions is a common challenge around the world. Helena Asamoah-Hassan, university librarian, Kwame University of Science and Technology, Ghana, has been involved in advocacy efforts to promote open access at institutional, national, regional, and international levels. Asamoah-Hassan addresses similar themes within the African context: “African researchers have the greatest opportunity to access current research information and to disseminate that research output globally when they embrace OA publishing—the challenge now is how to get a good number of them to believe that OA publishing is authoritative, authentic, and economical.”

The 50,000-Foot View of the OA Infrastructure

Open access can be achieved through two main routes—by publishing in OA journals, traditionally referred to as the “gold” route, or by depositing a copy of articles into a “green” repository. But the infrastructure is far more complex and nuanced than these two color-coded routes imply.

On the publishing side, OA now includes several permutations based on levels of openness. For instance, hybrid journals remain toll access or pay-per-view for articles on a default basis, but give authors the option of paying a fee to make their articles free for others to access. Most of the large STM publishers now provide this option in order to comply with open access mandates yet still allow traditional subscription-based or pay-per-access business models to remain in place.

The formative definitions of open access refer to two types of openness—making research both free to access and free to use, adapt, reuse, or build upon. This second component of the standard definitions of OA is not fully adopted throughout the publishing world. In other words, not all articles that are free to access include reuse rights via a Creative Commons Attribution License (CC-BY) or Creative Commons Public Domain License (CC-0).

This complexity within journal publishing is reflected in the DOAJ’s recent announcement to revisit its inclusion criteria. (See Table 1 for the new criteria for inclusion in the DOAJ.) Now 10 years old and often seen as the authoritative source for determining whether a journal is open access, the DOAJ is refining its criteria to reflect the gradations and permutations in OA publishing. In addition, the new DOAJ criteria also codifies some best practices from what had been de facto standards within the wild west of OA publishing.

The complexity of the OA infrastructure doesn’t end with journals. Repository managers face a variety of technical challenges to ensure interoperability with other systems, particularly systems tied to various facets of research workflows. From Kuchma’s standpoint, “Embedding open access repositories into institutional processes, systems, and culture is still a big challenge. Repositories should be more firmly connected to researchers’ workflows and to research management—e.g., via reporting and performance measurement functions of repositories. And,” she adds, “we need to link research projects and their outputs more efficiently.

Kathleen Shearer, executive director Confederation of Open Access Repositories (COAR), notes: “Open access has finally reached the tipping point, and OA laws and policies are being implemented in many jurisdictions including that of the Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP) in the United States.” According to Shearer, since these policies will have significant implications for repositories, there is a need to ensure that the repositories are interoperable across institutions and nations in order to develop a truly global and seamless research information system.

As online publishing platforms and repositories become more mature, developers are able to create new tools and functionality that go much further than replicating the traditional scholarly communication cycle. Many new tools are designed to work across standards-compliant publishing platforms and repositories, emphasizing the interconnectedness of these two streams and further complicating the landscape. For instance, ORCID ( provides authors with a persistent identifier to bring together their own publications stored in multiple systems and locations—including some publishers’ platforms and repositories. PLOS’s Article-Level Metrics (ALM) app ( is now available for adoption by repositories and journal publishers. Navigating this continually evolving terrain of interoperability standards, tools, and initiatives is no small feat.

Free, but Who Pays? The Economics of Open Access Publishing

The common model which has emerged for many OA journals, particularly within STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Mathematics) fields, is via article processing charges (APCs) or the “author-pays” model. In these instances, authors are charged a fee ranging from $99 USD (e.g., PeerJ ) to around $2,900 at the highest end of the spectrum (e.g., PLOS Biology , PLOS Medicine ). Most journals that charge APCs charge a few hundred dollars. Many charging APCs also provide waivers for authors from developing countries.

The reality is that in the United States and Europe, most APCs are indirectly paid for by funding agencies—increasingly, researchers are encouraged to incorporate the cost of publication into grant applications—or by their universities. Several universities have begun setting up open access publishing funds, funding which is earmarked specifically to help researchers cover APCs. In 2010, SPARC published a report, “Campus-Based Open-Access Publishing Funds: A Practical Guide to Design and Implementation,” containing a series of resources, best practices, implementation tools, and case studies designed to share the experiences of early adopters of this practice (

But in many cases, these funds are not necessary: Not all OA journals charge a fee. Many OA journals fall into the category of so-called “Diamond OA,” and publish their journals at no cost to authors, with costs absorbed by universities or other organizations publishing the journals.

The APC model does create opportunities for shady businesses to exploit the system. Some experts caution that funding agencies’ willingness to pay for publishing could unintentionally inflate APCs. A more pressing issue has been the rise of so-called “predatory open access journals,” journals with dubious business practices and/or publishing articles without a rigorous peer-review vetting process. (See Jeffrey Beall’s Scholarly Open Access blog and Beall’s list of potential, possible, or probable predatory scholarly open-access publishers for more details on this topic: The problem of predatory OA has been increasing in recent years, even though these journals often have a poor reputation associated with them. The trouble is that this trend is affecting all of OA publishing, not just those without a rigorous peer-review process in place.

Open Access Within Higher Education

University support for open access has been steadily rising during the past 10 years, but the University of California (UC) passed a landmark OA policy which covers all peer-reviewed articles written by faculty from all 10 U.S. campuses and published after the policy was passed on July 24, 2013. The Aug. 2, 2013, press release, “Academic Senate Approves Open Access Policy” (, notes that the policy covers more than 8,000 faculty members who produce as many as 40,000 publications a year. The press release states:

UC is the largest public research university in the world and its faculty members receive roughly 8% of all research funding in the U.S. With this policy UC Faculty make a commitment to the public accessibility of research, especially, but not only, research paid for with public funding by the people of California and the United States. This initiative is in line with the recently announced White House Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP) directive requiring “each Federal Agency with over $100 million in annual conduct of research and development expenditures to develop a plan to support increased public access to results of the research funded by the Federal Government.

Richard A. Schneider, professor, Department of Orthopaedic Surgery, and chair of the Committee on Library and Scholarly Communication at UCSF, was quoted in the press release as saying: “The ten UC campuses generate around 2-–3% of all the peer-reviewed articles published in the world every year, and this policy will make many of those articles freely available to anyone who is interested anywhere, whether they are colleagues, students, or members of the general public.”

Passing a mandate is step one; getting researchers to deposit their articles into the repository in compliance with university policies and funding agency policies can be an ongoing battle. The University of Minho in Portugal had one of the first open access mandates, and it still has one of the highest compliance rates among universities with such mandates. In 2013, approximately 70% of the university’s research outputs was deposited into the repository in compliance with the policy. Eloy Rodrigues, director, Documentation Services, University of Minho, was succinct when asked about the critical elements for the University of Minho’s success in this area: “To have a strong and clear mandate, with monitoring tools and procedures, and connect [the OA mandate] with individual and institutional repository and evaluation.”

As we approach the 10th anniversary of the earliest university OA policies—University of Minho passed its mandate in 2004—best practices for content recruitment from universities of all shapes, sizes, and locations are starting to emerge. In 2013, COAR published the report “Incentives, Integration, and Mediation: Sustainable Practices for Populating Repositories” ( The report offers three broad categories of practices:

  1. Incentives: promoting the benefits of repositories through university advocacy and metrics, as well as the adoption of policies/mandates that require deposit
  2. Integration: amalgamating repository services with other institutional services such as research information systems and research biographies
  3. Mediation: implementing tools, workflows, and agreements that ease and simplify the deposit process

While libraries are often given the responsibility of overseeing the repository, the most successful OA policies are those receiving strong support from university leadership and administrators. Curt Rice, professor, University of Tromsø, and currently a Fellow at the Netherlands Institute of Advanced Study, suggests, “University leadership should definitely be driving discussions of OA. It is in the interest of any university leadership that the research done on campus is distributed as widely as possible, that it is cited as much as possible, and that its researchers take a position in their international research communities. OA makes work more available and more visible, and that alone is a good reason for leadership to push ahead.”

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Abby Clobridge is is founder and consultant, FireOak Strategies, LLC. 


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