Friday, 21 June 2013

An Introduction to Open Access

This week sees the introduction of the University's Open Access Policy. For those who are new to OA, I thought it would be useful to post a brief introduction to it.

Broad definition

Open Access (OA) is the practice of allowing academic outputs to be available to all, free of charge. Generally this applies to journal articles, but some effort is being made to apply OA to monographs and other outputs.

OA takes two forms:
  • 'Green': in which an article is archived in a freely accessible online repository (such as KAR);
  • 'Gold:' in which an article is made freely available through a journal without subscription. Some publishers levy an 'article processing charge' (APC) for allowing an article to be made available OA.

Although OA can be traced back to the 1940s, the modern movement began in the 1990s, and emerged first in the sciences. The earliest free online archive was arXiv, established in 1991. PubMed, an online repository for medical research, was created in 1997, and the ePrints software was developed in 2000. 

The movement gained momentum in the early 21st Century. 34,000 scholars signed a 2001 open letter to publishers calling for open access, and pledging not to publish in non-OA journals. The Budapest Open Access Initiative pinned down the definition of OA in 2002, and this was followed in 2003 by the Berlin Declaration. An increasing number of OA journals and repositories were established subsequently.

The Wellcome Trust mandated OA in 2006; the European Commission (EC) launched an OA pilot project in 2008, and has made it mandatory for Horizon 2020.

In 2011 the UK Government set up the Finch Group to look at open access. It reported in 2012, and all of its recommendations were accepted by the Government.

UK Research Councils

As a result, the UK Research Councils (RCUK) OA Policy states that, from 1 April 2013:
  • RCUK-funded research published in peer review journals should be made OA;
  • Both Gold and Green OA is supported, but Gold is preferred;
  • If Green is chosen, investigators have 6 months (for STEM subjects) and 12 months (for Humanities and Social Science subjects) to deposit their articles in a repository. There is some flexibility with this during the 'transition period' (until 2018);
  • Articles should be made available under a CC BY licence;
  • Underlying data should also, where possible, be made freely available.
Investigators can check whether their chosen journal complies with these demands on the SHERPA/RoMEO website.

RCUK expects institutions to make a minimum of 45% of the papers arising from RCUK projects OA in 2013/14, rising to 53% in 2014/15. 


OA is not without its controversy. Concerns include: 
  • It may be expensive, and publishers may 'double dip' - i.e. charge readers by subscription, and contributors through the APC;
  • Funders are spending money on OA rather than the research itself. However, the Wellcome Trust estimates that the cost of OA is no more than 1-2% of its budget;
  • The funders' OA mandate may limit individual academic freedom to publish wherever they choose;
  • It may exclude those who can't afford APCs from the more high profile 'Gold' OA;
  • It may threaten the future of learned societies, which rely for their existence on income raised from their journals;
  • Authors may lose control of their work through the CC BY licence.
However, these concerns are countered by those who perceive the advantages:
  • It removes the 'power to publish' from a small number of large publishers;
  • It allows for the wider dissemination of knowledge beyond academia;
  • This, in turn, allows research to be used commercially more quickly;
  • It may raise the profile of a wider range of authors, and increase citation rates for articles.
More information

Peter Suber provides a useful and comprehensive view of open access. The Guardian has an open access section of its Higher Education Network that provides update on its development. Elsewhere there are a wide range of voices and opinions on OA produced by governments, funders, learned societies, universities and individuals. Search any of their websites for specific policies or standpoints, or contact me directly for more information.