Defining Open Access

By Jeff Martin

The Internet has transformed the ways in which academic research can be accessed. Researchers can now grant any person connected to the Internet unfettered access to their work at any time without cost. This free access is commonly called open access (OA).

Open access is a property of a research article. An OA article does not require payment from a customer (no price barriers such as subscriptions) and has reduced permissions barriers (such as most copyright and licensing restrictions). Some commentators also argue that OA is the ideal way that academic research should be published.

The four main types of open access are “green” repositories, “gold” academic journals, hybrid journals, and predatory journals. Repositories are online storage sites in which articles can be deposited, indexed and searched. Repository administrators do not conduct peer review themselves. Uploaded articles, however, typically have been reviewed elsewhere. See for a list of repositories.

Open access journals share many similarities with subscription journals. For example, articles submitted to OA journals are subject to the peer review process (assuming the journal administrators want to publish peer reviewed research!). The key differences between the journal types are who pays what cost to access content and reduced permissions barriers for authors who publish in OA journals.

Free access is granted when payment comes from the “producer” side of the publishing process. Three examples of funding sources are subsidies from an author’s host institution, government subsidies and hard copy sales of the OA journal (online access is free). Authors are also often able to retain more copyright from OA journals compared to subscription journals. See PLoS ONE for an example of a “gold” OA journal.

Hybrid journals, on the other hand, are subscription journals that offer free access to some content. In other words, these journals use a mixed revenue model, such as subscriptions and Article Processing Charges. Examples of this model include the journal Physiological Genomics and Springer’s “Open Choice” program. For an extensive discussion of the “green”, “gold” and hybrid models, see the work of Peter Suber.

The owners of predatory journals use the “gold” journal model as a profit-making scheme. They use a variety of unethical practices. For example, academics, particularly graduate students and new researchers, are often targeted and enticed into submitting research. Manuscripts are quickly accepted for publication and a fee is then charged. Peer review is claimed to occur, despite evidence to the contrary. Some publishing academics are spammed with e-mails, whereas others are listed as journal editors without their consent.

Watch the following video for an explanation on why OA journals are good for not only researchers but also the general public.

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