Open Access: what is it and how far has it spread?

November 9, 2012 § 2 Comments

Louise Finer, Managing Editor, Reproductive Health Matters

The first in a series of three blogs on Open Access Publishing

Since the launch of the Open Access Initiative in Budapest in 2002, sponsored by the Open Society Institute, its proponents have sought to keep momentum in the academic, publishing and political spheres towards the fulfilment of a declaration of principles, and celebrated the 6th “Open Access week” on 22-28 October 2012. Reflecting on some of the discussions held during Open Access week, this blog series looks at how Open Access has evolved, its implications for publishing in general and, in particular, for Reproductive Health Matters.

Blog 1 – What is Open Access and how far has it spread?

The idea behind Open Access is that in the age of the internet, peer-reviewed journal papers should become a public good, with free and unrestricted access to them for all. The Open Access “movement” was consolidated in response to the rapid development of internet and digital technology, as well as growing concerns about the inaccessibility of printed scholarly literature. According to its proponents, the removal of “access barriers” will “accelerate research, enrich education, share the learning of the rich with the poor and the poor with the rich, make this literature as useful as it can be, and lay the foundation for uniting humanity in a common intellectual conversation and quest for knowledge”. Open Access means “free availability on the public internet, permitting any users to read, download, copy, distribute, print, search, or link to the full texts of these articles, crawl them for indexing, pass them as data to software, or use them for any other lawful purpose, without financial, legal, or technical barriers other than those inseparable from gaining access to the internet itself”. Authors should be given control over the integrity of their work and be properly acknowledged and cited, but any other constraints on reproduction and distribution would no longer be acceptable.

There are two approaches to Open Access online publishing:

“Gold” Open Access is when papers are published by journals which do not charge a subscription fee but do charge authors or their institutions a fee to publish their papers. See for example, PLOS.

“Green” Open Access is when papers published in journals that do charge a subscription are subsequently self-archived by authors in an online repository (complying with any conditions set by the journal that originally published the paper). See, for example, UCL Discovery. A directory of Open Access repositories can be found here.

According to the initial statement of principles, these two Open Access strategies should be complementary.

How far has Open Access spread?

According to the Open Society Foundations, Open Access is now mandated by over 300 research funders and institutions worldwide. Information published by the ROARMAP  registry of Open Access repositories shows these are primarily – though not exclusively – situated in Europe, followed by North America. The US National Institutes for Health (NIH) set new ground in 2008 by adopting a Public Access Policy  requiring that all papers based on NIH-funded research be made publicly accessible through the digital archive PubMed Central no later than 12 months after official publication. Similarly, the UK-based Wellcome Trust requires papers based on any research they fund in whole or in part to be available through a PubMed Central repository.

As of 2011 approximately 17% of scholarly journal articles are now made openly available on the internet through Gold Open Access journals. While initially Open Access publishing was driven largely by scientific and professional associations, universities and individual researchers, nowadays commercial and new so-called “professional non-commercial” publishers have overshadowed these. Online-only journals have sustained stronger growth in providing Open Access content, while print journals that provide Open Access output have plateaued.

Regarding “green” Open Access repositories, institutions and funders at a recent discussion at Birkbeck College, University of London said that researchers’ compliance with self-archiving rules was far from complete. The Wellcome Trust, for example, recently acknowledged  that only 55% of research papers acknowledging its funding comply with their Open Access policy. It has announced efforts to strengthen enforcement (including withholding final grant payments and discounting non-compliant publications in future funding applications).

Our second blog on Open Acess will look at the flip side of this story.

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