An introduction to Open Access for academics

This is a draft of my chapter on Open Access for the Legal Academics’ Handbook, which is due to be published by Palgrave Macmillan in 2015.  I would be grateful for any feedback, either via commenting below, or by email.

How does academic publishing work?

Academics are employed by universities, and as part of their job, they read each others’ scholarly writings and produce research outputs of their own.  Scholarly works in the form of journal articles or books are published by commercial publishers.   In this chapter, I will often refer to articles, but the principles apply to a range of formats.  Commercial publishers provide an editorial process and meet costs of production, and then make journals and books available to read for payment: typically a one-off cost for books and individual articles, or a subscription for journals.  The work of the academics in writing research outputs and providing peer review is not paid by the commercial publisher, but is considered part of their salaried employment at their university.

This is the traditional (or legacy) model of academic publishing.  For some time, it has been challenged on the following points:

  1. Costs of production are falling as academic publishing moves online.
  2. Costs of library subscriptions to academic journals have been increasing well above the rate of inflation (this is referred to as the serials crisis)
  3. The traditional model usually involves academics signing over their intellectual property rights to the commercial publisher, which means that they no longer own the copyright in their work, and cannot legally distribute copies of their own work outside the publisher’s framework, e.g. by placing a PDF of their paper on their own website
  4. Pressure to include re-usable datasets in scientific papers, allowing the methodology to be scrutinised and tested.
  5. The pay-to-access model excludes many potential readers.  Even those with university affiliations and access to their university’s print and electronic journal collection find that they do not have access to every article in their field (as the serials crisis grows, libraries have to cut subscriptions as costs escalate and budgets shrink).  Other disenfranchised potential readers include researchers in developing economies, researchers in the UK who do not have a university connection, retired academics, staff and students in schools and/or further education, and other interested lay persons.
  6. Increasing demand for the products of publicly-funded research (in the form of UK HE academics’ salaries) to be freely available to be read by taxpayers who funded the research activity in the first place.

The Open Access (OA) movement challenges this traditional academic publishing model.  An article that is OA can be freely accessed, shared and reused by anyone in the world via the internet, with a subscription or login.  Open Access removes barriers of cost (subscriptions or pay-per-view fees) and barriers of permission (copyright, licencing restrictions).

What is OA?

The traditional publishing model relies on denying access to knowledge.  At the heart of OA is the idea that the scholarly research outputs should be available to read online without payment (gratis open access) and that the outputs are licensed to share and re-use, with attribution (libre open access).

Here is the definition from the Budapest Open Access Initiative:

By “open access” to this literature, we mean its 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. The only constraint on reproduction and distribution, and the only role for copyright in this domain, should be to give authors control over the integrity of their work and the right to be properly acknowledged and cited.

Gratis open access addresses the challenge of pay-to-read publishing.  Just as important, the libre element of OA means that the intellectual property rights of the document remain with the author (rather than being signed away to the commercial publisher); that the work can be indexed by computers (allowing the full text to be used by an internet search engine or research database); and that users can legally link to, download, and share the document.

OA is possible via two routes: gold, in which the published edition of a work is available from the publisher’s website; and green, in which the final copy of the published work is available under OA licence from a repository.  A repository is a database of research outputs, typically organised by institution (e.g. a university), or by subject (e.g. bepress Legal Repository).

The difference between the gold and green routes is whether OA is provided by the journal itself, or by a repository.  It is not a measure of quality.

As the model of academic publishing changes, new funding streams are being explored, including:

  1. institutional support
  2. research centre & society partnerships
  3. research funding subsidy
  4. library expenditure
  5. direct publication charges such as article processing charges (APCs)

Some of these also challenge the for-profit business model of commercial publishers.

Drivers for OA

The main driver for open access is the 2012 Finch Report, which mandated that all UK publicly-funded research outputs be free to access, with gold OA as the preferred route.

Post-REF2014, research outputs submitted to the research assessments process must be accessible from the author’s institutional repository.

Furthermore, universities are increasingly developing their own OA policies.

Therefore, authors are likely to find that they are obliged to publish OA by their research funder, the demands of the REF, and their institution.

Commercial publishers understand that academics are under pressure to publish OA, and are providing OA options.  However, the Finch Report did not specify that OA had to be libre as well as gratis.  The Finch Report favoured gold over green as the preferred route to OA, and recommended that this would be funded by APCs.  The Finch Panel involved a number of representatives from the world of commercial publishing.

The major difference between these and “born-OA” methods is that commercial publishers seek to maintain their revenue (for example, Elsevier reported a 36 percent profit on revenues of $3.2 billion in 2010), and so are charging for OA in the form of article processing charges or APCs.  The author pays the APC – this may be handled by their institution, often the library; or by their funding body – and their work becomes gratis OA.  It is worth noting that this usually isn’t libre OA, as the author still signs away their copyright and the article isn’t licensed for sharing and re-use.  Another option offered by commercial publishers is to allow green OA after an embargo period.  This achieves the letter of gratis OA, but not the spirit; as current access to the article is only for those with subscriptions, leaving the rest to wait until the embargo has passed before being able to read the content.

It is foreseen that there will be a transitional period as traditional publishers move from subscriptions revenue to an APC-funded model.

During this time, university libraries will have to pay journal subscriptions as well as APCs, putting yet more pressure on already-squeezed budgets.  Commercial publishers will benefit, as they will receive income from both subscriptions and APCs.  Some have promised to reduce subscriptions in proportion to APC revenue, but nonetheless it seems likely that a “double-dipping” dual revenue will develop during the transitional period.

Additional APC funding is being provided to research-intensive institutions from central public funds, reinforcing a cycle of research success and making it even harder to develop new research nuclei (at newer universities, for example).

The value of a journal is often measured by impact factor (particularly in the fields of sciences and medicine).  Impact factor is a metric which is itself the product of a commercial body, Thomson Reuters.  Impact factor is a measure of a journal’s readership and frequency of citation of its articles.  Impact factor is coming under increasing criticism for its reliability, susceptibility to manipulation, and competition from alternative measurements such as Article-Level Metrics (ALMs).

Having a paper published in a high-profile, big brand journal is still an attractive prospect for academics (and is perceived to be necessary to gain tenure or REF status) and this is a powerful factor keeping academics tied into commercial publishers.

OA journals are sometimes criticised for having poor peer review processes.  However, problems with peer review are found in both OA and traditional journals, and the peer review process is not related to whether a journal is OA or not.

As well as the pressure to publish OA, there are also more positive reasons for authors to embrace OA:

  • OA allows you a broader readership, including input from non-academics.  This is particularly useful in Law, a discipline which naturally intersects with many fields of public interest and policy.
  • making your research OA maximises the impact of your work, and gives you a citation advantage, as no-one is prevented by a paywall from reading it, and therefore citing it in their research.
  • reader interaction – a libre OA licence allows you to track sharing of and commenting on your work by others, and the opportunity to respond and engage.  Born-OA journals are particularly good at building in this functionality, which is completely absent from traditional journal publishing.
  • born-OA journal platforms allow you greater use of web technology in your writing, such as embedding multimedia and links to other articles, statistics, and reports.
  • using libre OA articles allows you to easily re-use (with automatic attribution) and cite the work of others in your writing.
  • libre OA allows you to retain the intellectual property rights in your own work.
  • OA brings the linking and indexing power of the internet to your research.  It is in effect the Electronic Enlightenment for knowledge.

Find out what (if any) are your obligations to your institution and your funding body (if different from your institution); and your involvement in next REF (2020, at the time of writing).

Most UK HE institutions now have a repository.  Find out who manages yours – they will be an excellent source of information and advice.

Once your obligations have been met, other decisions about OA publication are yours.  Access to, licensing of, and funding for scholarly research and its outputs is largely determined by academics, whose decisions about where to publish their work, and which works to include in reading lists for students, are without doubt the strongest drivers in this field.

Links/further reading


  1. Pingback: #ISEWLib2014 Collection management and e-resources | Laura's Dark Archive

  2. Pingback: Open Access Week 2014 | uoslawlibrarian

  3. Pingback: Much ado about licences and subscriptions | Laura's Dark Archive

  4. Pingback: Open Access Week 2015 | Laura's Dark Archive

  5. Pingback: The Legal Academic’s Handbook – now available | Laura's Dark Archive

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