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Overview of Open Access


Open Access is...

If an article is "Open Access" it means that it can be freely accessed by anyone in the world using an internet connection. This means that the potential readership of Open Access articles is far, far greater than that for articles where the full-text is restricted to subscribers. Evidence shows that making research material Open Access increases the number of readers and significantly increases citations to the article - in some fields increasing citations by 300%.

What Open Access is not...

It is important to point out that Open Access does not affect peer-review; articles are peer-reviewed and published in journals in the normal way. There is no suggestion that authors should use repositories instead of journals. Open Access repositories supplement and do not replace journals. Some authors have feared that wider availability will increase plagiarism: in fact, if anything, Open Access serves to reduce plagiarism. When material is freely available the chance that plagiarism is recognised and exposed is that much higher.

What is the problem?

Journal price rises over the last decade mean that most universities can no longer afford subscriptions to all of the journals that their academics need. Even if a journal is available on-line, this does not mean it is freely available: university libraries pay large subscriptions to allow their academics to easily access journal materials on-line. Price rises that are many times the rate of inflation continue to be imposed each year, further restricting access to journal articles. The situation is even worse in the developing world, where journal subscription prices mean that many institutions simply cannot afford access to up-to-date research.

Open Access Solutions

Open Access addresses these problems by taking the results of research that has already been paid for and making it freely available on-line, through repositories and websites. This process can have significant advantages for individual authors, for researchers, for institutions and for the process of research generally by freeing up the process of dissemination. Many funders have recognised that the job of research is only half-done if the results of that research cannot reach the widest audience. Some are formulating policies to require Open Access to their funded research.

Public Access

Another aspect is that on a national level, most research is publicly funded and yet the general public cannot get access to the results that have been paid for by their taxes. For example, in the first decade of the 21st century,the majority of research paid for and carried out by the UK National Health Service was not freely available - even to NHS staff. As this research had been paid for out of public taxes and underpinned healthcare, there is a strong moral case for thinking that it should be at least available to health service practitioners, if not the general public. Restricting access to research has many disadvantages. For instance, it means that there is often no readily accessible material available to science journalists or the public to counter the regular scare-stories or reputed miracle cures widely reported in the mass media.

Open Access Repositories

Open Access repositories can hold digital duplicates of published articles and make them freely available. Subject to copyright (see below) authors can deposit copies of their finished articles in repositories alongside their publication in normal journals. The available evidence shows that this does not affect journal subscriptions. If the subject-discipline circulates unrefereed pre-prints or working papers in advance of publication (like Physics, or Economics), then these can be deposited. If an accepted method of communication is through conference papers (like Computer Science), then these can be deposited: similarly for fields that use book chapters or reports. Other fields like Biomedicine only circulate refereed post-prints. Repositories tag peer-reviewed material to make this status clear. The important point is that repositories reflect and support the existing research culture of the discipline.

The system works by these electronic versions of article, or eprints, being deposited into a database, or repository. These repositories are mainly administered by research institutions, which confers the advantage of allowing local support of users. Such institutional repositories share records about their content with service providers, who then offer search services to users across every record that they hold. This means that a researcher using a search service is searching across all repositories, not just individual ones. Once the researcher finds a record, then they can view the full-text direct from the instutional repository. As well as services which just search repositories, the full-text is also searched by Google, Yahoo and others.

Depositing in Repositories

There is no charge for using institutional repositories. The process of deposition typically takes about 10 minutes and consists of filling in a web-based form with details about the article; then attaching a pdf copy (or similar), and then submitting it to the repository administrator. Repositories have help-systems and guidance: some institutions may offer personal assistance for the first few times you deposit. The process is quick and simple and will mean that the article is then available world-wide to a vastly increased readership.

When writing an article, it is important for author to keep a copy of the final version, after all the changes due to peer-review have been integrated in the text. Publishers sometimes refuse permission for authors to use the version which have been typeset, but allow authors to use their own final version, even though the content of the article is exactly the same. If you no longer have your own copy, then sometimes your editor might be able to supply you with a copy of what you sent them. However, it is always easier to keep your own copy of your final version.

Open Access Journals

An alternate way of providing Open Access is to publish in an Open Access Journal. These journals make their articles available for free through charging for the publication services before publication, rather than after publication through subscriptions. Open Access publication charges can be often included within the costs of research funding, so the money for access comes through the research funder, rather than through the library budget. Of course, the initial source of the money is often the same (from government funding), but the economics of this model means that the overall cost is lower. There are a growing number of Open Access Journals, with a journal available in most disciplines. A list of the ones currently available is provided by the Directory of Open Access Journals.

Some publishers are experimenting with hybrid journals, where the subscription version is still sold, but for a supplement - typically around $3000 each - an articles can then be made freely available. It has been noted that far from reducing costs, this increases the overall cost of publication. However, while the Open Access model catches on, this is one way that articles can be made freely available. Research funders, such as the Wellcome Trust, currently make available additional financing to fund this additional open access charge. However, this is typically only made available to fund a transition period while publishers adopt open access publishing models and as this effectively pays the publisher twice publication of an article, this is not intended to be a sustainable model for the future.

Repositories in Europe

The development of institutional repositories across Europe continues. The DRIVER project helped to establish and develop repositories in each of the European countries. Brief summaries on each country are available from the Countries page.

Last updated: 04-Feb-2010