Open access publishing has the potential to ensure that critical scientific findings reach both academic and applied experts working on the world’s most pressing problems. Defined as literature that is digital, online, free of charge, and free of most copyright and licensing restrictions, open access lets researchers extend the reach of their findings and encourages collaboration with a range of stakeholders.
Even more importantly, open access empowers those who can directly apply new discoveries. Because open access eliminates costs associated with subscriptions and makes reuse terms evident, patients, teachers, activists, service providers, local officials, or policymakers can find the information they need to understand complex situations and address urgent problems.
How Open Access Has Changed Scholarly Publishing
Open access—or OA—comes in two basic flavors: gold and green.
Gold open access makes peer-reviewed articles freely available to any user upon publication. Authors retain copyright to gold OA articles and can specify reuse terms through Creative Commons licensing. Authors must pay an article processing charge (APC) to publishers, often amounting to several thousand dollars. APCs offset forgone subscription revenues that would otherwise cover costs of managing peer review, copy editing, layout, and distribution.
Under the green OA model, authors make pre-publication versions of manuscripts—or preprints—freely available by uploading them to a repository associated with researchers’ institutions or their field of study (such as arXiv, biorXiv, or SSRN). Such self-archiving is complicated by journals’ varying restrictions on sharing the contents if the preprint is submitted for peer review and later published.
Both green and gold OA have shaken up scholarly publishing, challenging the traditional subscription-based model of established academic journals and publishers. As with any disrupted organizational field, there is turmoil as new entrants try to gain a foothold while incumbent actors struggle to maintain their position. As the field has expanded, there have been some negative developments, such as
- Predatory journals that charge authors APCs but fail to perform rigorous peer review. Authors and readers can identify legitimate OA journals by consulting the Directory of OA Journals or Cabell’s lists.
- Difficulties distinguishing between peer-reviewed research in legitimate journals and results that have not been subjected to peer review, whether preprints or in predatory journals.
- Illegal posting of copyrighted research on sharing sites, such ResearchGate, Academia.edu, and SciHub, which—according to a recent preprint—is estimated to contain 96 percent of subscription-based articles published after 2015.
The Latest Innovations in Open Access Models: Balancing Author Control and Publishing Costs
OA has also led to innovation and experimentation with different models that enable users to access free information while authors control their research and knowledge distributors can cover the costs of the services they provide. Some of these models include:
- Mandated public access – PubMed Central is one prominent example. The U.S. National Institutes of Health (NIH) require all authors who receive NIH funding to make resulting articles available through PubMed Central within a year of publication. PubMed Central is not strictly OA because publishers often control rights to the articles and articles are not immediately available. The PubMed Central model is spreading to other U.S. government agencies. In contrast, the EU has a policy promoting OA for publicly funded research.
- Voluntary public access – Publishers are making an increasing number of articles free to read without charging authors APCs, subsidizing public access. A recent preprint – based on an analysis of 300,000 articles – suggests that this model now accounts for the largest number of OA articles. The RTI Press fits into this niche of the OA landscape.
- Blending of gold and green OA – The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation recently launched an Open Research platform, organized by the foundation, that allows researchers to upload preprints that are publicly available while they are subjected to peer review. After responding to reviewers, authors post revised public versions; the final articles will be indexed in PubMed Central. Some journals have adopted a similar model to facilitate linking between preprints and peer-reviewed versions of a paper, clarifying to readers to what level of scrutiny results have been subjected.
These models underscore the potential for digital distribution of rigorous research to a much broader audience than has previously had access to peer-reviewed results. They also help address the crisis of confidence in science by encouraging reproducibility.
Repositories are now available for data, methods, and code, in addition to preprints. Coupled with OA articles that have been rigorously peer-reviewed, these resources allow scientists to not only replicate colleagues’ research but also to repeat the experiments with new parameters, to test and potentially strengthen the original findings.
The Future of Open Access
OA is changing rapidly with the proliferation of innovations and models. The pace of change and the multitude of actors make future direction challenging to predict. But continuing moves towards greater transparency, combined with clear standards for scientific rigor, suggest that open access may fulfil its promise of more rigorous science that is available to the people who need it most.