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Open Access—An Open and Shut Case?

Posted by Mitja-Alexander Linss on May 25, 2017

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Researchers who seek to influence their respective spaces want their work to be disseminated as widely as possible. And readers of that research would welcome the opportunity to be able to access it freely. With such willingness on both sides of the equation, how hard can it be to put the two parties together? Enter Open Access.

 But not so fast. There are a great many motivations surrounding Open Access, some well-intentioned, some misguided, some brilliant, and some just plain nefarious. The challenge is that they are all in the mix. Consequently, there’s more to Open Access than just “free papers.” That’s why we’d like to spend a bit of time here over the next few weeks to dissect the dominant issues, and perhaps bring about a better understanding of how this powerful, but sometimes dangerous, vehicle can assist your own research, whether you’re consuming content or publishing it, because Open Access cuts both ways.

 For starters, let’s just say that not all Open Access articles are created equal. And by “equal,” we mean in terms of just about every attribute an article can exhibit, from quality to copyright. Some Open Access articles are peer-reviewed, just like the journal articles you’re used to, while others are not. Moreover, there are varying degrees of Open Access use rights, especially in the context of commercial consumption.

 Let’s stake out the territory here with a few key definitions, and take deeper dives into each aspect as we go. First, a definition of Open Access, itself. There are many, but we like the one put forth by the Budapest Open Access Initiative in February, 2002:

“There are many degrees and kinds of wider and easier access to literature. 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.”

That’s pretty comprehensive. So, how does this work out in practice? Well, again—and this will start sounding like a familiar refrain—in many ways. While we have identified as many as eight different flavors of Open Access, there are two classifications that ultimately matter:

  1. Articles published to Open Access journals.
  2. Articles published to Open Access repositories or archives.

The chief difference between the two classes is that peer review is performed by the journal publishers that offer an Open Access option (and most of the traditional publishers do), while peer review is not required for articles published to archives or repositories, such as Cornell University’s ArXiv, for example.

 Something else you might have noticed about the various classifications of Open Access: they’re color-coded. Generally speaking, articles published by the peer-reviewed journals are Gold; those published directly to archives and repositories are Green. Beyond these, we also have Blue, Yellow, White, Pale Green, Gray, and Black. More about them in another installment. For now, though, we’ll just consider the Gold and the Green, which correspond to the journal and archive/repository variants, respectively.

 Green refers to self-archiving of articles in repositories, which can include personal websites, disciplinary archives, or institutional repositories. One advantage they offer is their immediacy, particularly for authors who don’t want to get scooped on their research while they’re waiting on what can be a lengthy peer review process. As such, there is a spectrum of sub-classifications that these articles might fall into, including pre-prints (articles before they’ve been reviewed), post-prints (reviewed and corrected, but not yet formatted for publication), or a publisher’s final version. Green is also a fast-growing category: more than 3,500 institutional and cross-institutional repositories have been registered in ROAR—the Registry of Open Access Repositories, which keeps track of them.

 Gold, on the other hand, refers to articles published in Open Access journals (and sometimes also to repositories) and are geared toward authors who wish to make their work openly accessible, without paywalls or other barriers to potential readers. And it is the authors (or their organizations) who often pay for the privilege. Roughly a third of Gold Open Access journals charge authors what is colloquially known as an “article processing fee” to make up for the loss of reader subscription revenues. And that fee can run into several thousands of dollars. The Gold publishing option usually includes the right by the author to deposit either the pre-print, post-print, or both into a repository, often after an embargo period has elapsed. This includes cases where a government mandate such as the NIH Public Access Policy or a funding body such as Wellcome Trust require it.

 The Directory of Open Access Journals (DOAJ) provides a fairly comprehensive list of journals that publish Open Access content exclusively. One such pure-play Open Access publisher is PLoS (Public Library of Science). But because the DOAJ has strict criteria for inclusion—namely detailed licensing polices and adherence—not all Open Access publishers are listed among the many thousand they’ve indexed. In fact, a large number of them have been purged because they failed to meet DOAJ’s published standards.

 Note also that the mainline publishers are in on the Open Access game, as well. At Nature Publishing Group, for example, more than 60% of original research articles published are Open Access, comprising many thousands of papers.

Open access filesSource: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Open_access#/media/File:OA_by_Discipline.png

What’s getting published in Open Access? Peer-reviewed Gold leads in life sciences, but is swamped by Green in every other discipline.


We’ll wrap up this installment with a few words about Creative Commons (CC) licenses, which frequently work hand-in-glove with Open Access content. In brief, CCs are public copyright licenses that allow the free distribution of works, but with certain restrictions. Where Open Access articles are concerned, two such restrictions are common: 1) attribution (author credit), signified by the word “BY,” and 2) the limitation of use to non-commercial purposes, signified by “NC.” (Authors of Green Open Access articles should always attach a CC license.) So when you see a license designation on a work that reads CC-BY-NC, that means you are free to remix, tweak, and build upon the work, but only in a non-commercial context, and you must also acknowledge the author. Simple enough. But where the corporate use of such content is concerned, we’re faced with the question of ensuring compliance with the terms of the CC license. Any use of content outside the lines of the license constitutes copyright infringement, and, besides just being a bad practice, this can expose an enterprise to significant liability. This is where a research retrieval and knowledge management platform solution comes in. Enforcing copyright compliance is a cornerstone of any knowledge management solution, and Open Access and CC licenses are no exception. It’s a potentially confusing topic, so we’ll dig into that a bit more in a future post.

 So there you have it—a very cursory introduction to the Open Access landscape—scientific publishing’s Wild West. Next time we’ll investigate a few of Open Access’s alleys and byways into territories both light and dark. 



Topics: research, open access, Open Access Directory, researchers, open access journals, open access archives, DOAJ, public library of science, scientific publishing, scientifici literature, scientific content, ArXiv, PLoS

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