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The Open Access Debate: Should We Read for Free?

Frankie Harnett, Natalie Klinkenberg, Chloë Marshall and Alice Fusai

Open Access (OA) in academic publishing is the principle that research should be accessible to everyone, without cost or other access barriers, for both viewing and reproduction in further research. Concerning revenue, it differs from traditional publishing structures whereby the latter is funded by subscriptions or a pay-by-article model, while OA publications tend to be funded through article processing charges (APCs) paid by the author of the work. Scholarly journals use several different publishing operating models, offering various levels of access to research; for example, subscription based or ‘freemium’ models differ from free, unrestricted OA. It’s therefore important to consider which version of research is available before it is qualified as Open Access: whether or not the published research has been peer reviewed (pre/post prints) matters, as does the relevance of research made freely available only after an embargo (a delay period during which newer research may have superseded the original). True open access research must generally be made available immediately after publication and under a public copyright licence such as a Creative Commons licence (if unlicensed, it may be considered ‘black’ or pirated OA).

Recent Policies

The most recent OA policy comes from the UK Research and Innovation fund (UKRI). On 1 April 2022, the UKRI mandated that any published papers written by researchers “using UKRI cash” be free to read once published. By 1 January 2024, the policy will also apply to monographs, book chapters and edited collections. The UKRI policy mirrors the Europe-wide “Plan S” open-access initiative, offering support to researchers who publish in “gold” open access journals, or “hybrid” ones with “transformative agreements,” whereby universities cover subscription costs to journals, rendering all research Open Access. Without an agreement, the UKRI won’t pay the APC that makes the research free for everyone. Authors have the option to publish traditionally with a non-Open Access journal, but the research must be self-archived within an open repository, sans embargo.

Before the UKRI’s policy was implemented, the release of the Research Excellence Framework (REF) 2021 results were a major development in the debate. The REF’s OA policy provided a minimum number of requirements for OA and encouraged researchers to go beyond them. The Finch Report of 2012 was also an important step for the UK in the OA debate, outlining that Open Access is the future of academic publishing and extending taxpayer-funded research to local libraries for the public to read.

Advantages of Open Access

In a world where information is king, Open Access emerges as the champion of unrestricted knowledge dissemination. Some key advantages of Open Access include:

  • Accessibility: OA offers anyone with an internet connection access to cutting-edge research, no subscriptions or paywalls required. It's a game-changer for students, researchers and curious minds worldwide.

  • Speedy sharing: Unlike traditional publishing, OA lets researchers share their findings with the world almost instantly. No more waiting months or even years for a paper to get published. Knowledge flows freely and swiftly.

  • Visibility and impact: OA publications often enjoy greater visibility and impact, as they're easily discoverable online. Researchers can reach a broader audience and contribute to the global conversations in their fields.

  • Cost savings: Goodbye, hefty journal subscriptions! OA reduces financial burdens for individuals, institutions and libraries. This financial freedom can be redirected toward further research and innovation.

  • Innovation: OA has spurred innovation in publishing models, encouraging new, efficient ways to disseminate knowledge. From preprint servers to collaborative platforms, it's driving the future of scholarly communication.

Discussions of Open Access are however highly polarised and researchers have outlined its downsides as a publication model. Open Access publishing often requires more labour from researchers, with additional administration requirements and the need to supply publication data to repositories, making it more time-consuming than traditional publishing.

Furthermore, researchers looking into Open Access can attract a host of less reputable publishers, commonly coined ‘predatory journals’; aspiring OA researchers should check if their publisher has been scored by any of these reliable databases: QOAM, and DOAJ.

However, the most tangible and well-cited negative of Open Access publishing is the significant financial burden on the researcher. With no fees to cover APCs, researchers largely depend upon outside funding bodies such as universities to finance their publishing costs, which can range from $1,000 to over $10,000. This disproportionately affects unestablished researchers such as graduate students publishing dissertations, self-funded research too niche or controversial to attract major funding and most significantly, researchers from middle to low-income countries. While there are global initiatives designed to address this, for example offering APC waivers to these researchers, little evidence suggests that this is widespread or effective.

So, what is the future of Open Access publishing? Some academics suggest a hybrid model is preferable, acting as a bridge between OA and subscription-based formats. Journals like The European Journal of Neurology have adopted this model, with a subscription service available to access the journal’s entire library and a series of Open Access articles freely available. Hitting the mainstream in 2003 with adaptations from global publishers Elsevier and Wiley, the model has gained traction, with over 5,000 articles from seventy-three publishers using it since 2013.

But what does this mean for Open Access publishing? While gaining a foothold in mainstream publishers, the hybrid model was developed as a transitional method towards full OA. The last five years have seen a greater push towards open access, particularly with the agreement of European Plan S and recent widespread calls for a more radical approach to accelerate the process. In the last five months alone, Bloomsbury, Taylor and Francis and a collaboration of Elsevier, Wiley and Springer Nature have all adopted new Open Access schemes. While nothing is certain, it’s clear the next few years will be an exciting time in the campaign for Open Access publishing.


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