Open Access

What Is Open Access?

Disseminating and sharing scientific results has been part of research since it was established. The first scientific journal, Philosophical Transactions, was established in 1665 and published letters about scientific observations and experimentations. The ‘commercialisation’ of scientific publishing began in the 1940s and for many years publications, such as through a journal, conference proceedings or book, were available to the public if purchased through a subscription fee or individually.

However, new knowledge is built by synthesizing current scholarship and then building upon it. At the turn of the 21st century, the Open Access [def] movement was established, principally through the Budapest Open Access Initative and the Berlin Declaration on Open Access. A quote from the Budapest Open Access Initiative sums up the objective:

“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…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”

It has been estimated around 28% of the scholarly literature is Open Access [PPL+18]and in 2020 more outputs were published through Open Access channels than traditional subscription channels globally [Hoo21].

Routes for Open Access

An overview of Open Access and all the routes mentioned below are covered in these videos from Welch Medical Library and the Unpaywall team.

There is no ‘correct’ way to do Open Access and there are many different routes to sharing your research openly - we have shared 3 below that may help you. However, deciding on whether to share your research openly may depend on how prominent Open Access is in your field of research, how many resources you have to do this and whether there are restrictions or mandates from your funder or institution.


A preprint [def] is a scientific manuscript that is uploaded by the authors to a public server before peer review. The first preprint server called arXiv was established in 1991 for physical sciences. Likely due to the inefficiency of traditional journals, preprint servers for other disciplines have grown hugely in popularity over the last 5 years, with the emergence of bioRxiv, medRxiv, ChemRxiv, SocArXiv and many more. Preprints allow researchers to get their results out quickly and give the opportunity to get feedback on a manuscript before submitting it to a journal. Some journals will not allow a paper to be submitted if it has already been posted on a preprint server as they consider it ‘prior publication’, however, the ongoing popularity of preprints has forced many publishers to embrace preprints, or in the case of journals like eLife, actively encourage them [eli20]. You can find out more about preprints at ASAPbio.

Open Access Journal publishing

Traditionally many journals are subscription journals, meaning their content is behind a paywall. Universities may have subscriptions to that journal, allowing you to access its content if you are based at a subscribing institution or you may be able to pay a one-off fee to access an individual article.

The Open Access movement led to the creation of Open Access journals, where the content is open for everyone, with no need to pay or be a member of a subscribing institution. The number of these journals is still increasing rapidly, with 17,000 listed in the Directory of Open Access Journals DOAJ (data fetched November 2021).

Watch this talk by Vicky Hellon on “Brief History of scientific publishing, and where do we go from here?”, where she provides an overview of how different models of scientific publication look like, and how we can take an informed approach to Open Access.

Slides for this talk can be cited as Victoria Hellon. (2022, May 4). Scientific Publishing: a brief history and where do we go from here?. Zenodo.

Gold Open Access publishing

Gold Open Access Publishing (or sometimes referred to as libre) can be defined as paying an Article Processing Charge (APC) to a journal so they publish the final version of your article under an open access license, which is then permanently and freely available online for anyone. The author will retain the copyright of their article, usually via a Creative Commons licence of their choice, which dictates what others can do with the article. You can find out more about APCs in this video.

There can often be misconceptions around publishing in Open Access journals- as they are newer to the system they are often wrongly thought of as ‘less rigorous’ or ‘lower quality’ than the ‘traditional’ journals. Some researchers have also been caught up in what is referred to as ‘predatory publishing’- where they are tricked into paying an article processing charge to journals that are fraudulent and do not provide editorial processes that check articles for quality and legitimacy. Following the Think.Check.Submit guidelines can help researchers to avoid predatory journals.

A criticism around gold Open Access publishing is also the cost. APCs can generally be around 2000 USD or in some cases more, which can therefore be prohibitive for authors across the globe. Some publishers offer discounts or waivers to authors from countries classified by the World Bank as low-income economies or APCs may be covered by your funder as part of your grant.

Whilst some journals are fully Open Access, meaning all the articles they publish are open and free to read, some journals are hybrid. These are subscription journals that have an option for authors to pay an APC to make their content Open Access- some of the content of the journal will be behind a paywall and some will be free to read. Whilst publishers argue hybrid journals allow authors to publish openly in traditional journals, many (particularly funders) are critical of this model as ‘double dipping’, as publishers are being paid by authors to make their content open while simultaneously selling the journal subscription to universities.


You can also make your research open via self-archiving which is often referred to (along with preprints) as Green Open Access or gratis. The self-archiving [def] movement aims to provide tools and assistance to scholars to deposit and disseminate their refereed journal articles in open institutional or subject-based repositories. You may choose to self-archive your work to make it more discoverable and/or after you’ve published it in a subscription journal to ensure there is an open version of your paper.

At the beginning of 2019, more than 4000 repositories were available for researchers to self-archive their publications according to the Registry of Open Access Repositories. This list features institutional repositories, subject-based or thematic repositories, and harvesters.

Institutional repositories are generally managed by research performing institutions to provide to their community a place to archive and share papers and other research outputs openly. Research communities usually manage subject-based repositories, and most of the contents are related to a specific discipline. Finally, harvesters aggregate content from different repositories, becoming sites to perform general searches and build other value-added services.

When deciding to self-archive your work you will need to check the copyright policy of the journal you’ve published with (also consider doing this when you are looking at which journal to submit your manuscript too). Many journals still require that authors transfer full copyright for publication. This transfer of rights implies that authors must ask for permission to reuse their work beyond what is allowed by the applicable law unless there are some uses already granted. Such granted uses may include teaching, sharing with colleagues, and self-archiving papers in repositories. Sometimes, there are standard policies across all journals maintained by the same publishers.

However, in general, journals have their own policies, especially when they are published on behalf of a scientific society. When looking at the conditions for self-archiving, we must identify two key issues: the version of the paper that can be deposited, and when it can be made publicly available.

Regarding the version, some journals allow the dissemination of the submitted versions, also known as a preprint. They also allow its replacement with the peer-reviewed version once it has been published. Due to the increase of policies requiring access to research results, most of the journals allow self-archiving of the accepted version of the paper, also known as the author manuscript or postprint. This version is the final text following the peer review process but does not yet have publication formatting or layout applied. Finally, some journals do allow researchers to deposit the final published version, also known as the version of record.

Concerning the moment to make the paper publicly available, many journals establish a period from its original publication - the embargo period, which can range from zero to 60 months - were making the paper publicly available is not permitted. Some journals include or exclude embargoes depending on the versions. For instance, the accepted version could be made publicly available after publication, but the published version must wait 12 months. You can check journal policies on self-archiving using SHERPA/RoMEO.

Why Should You Share Your Research Openly?

Research is useless if it is not shared; even the best research is ineffectual if others are not able to read and build on it. Sharing your research openly and making your results known to others in your field and beyond (via pre-printing, gold open access publishing, self-archiving or a combination of the 3!) can help researchers work more effectively with a better understanding of the literature and helps to avoid duplication of effort- no researcher (or funder) wants to waste time and money conducting a study if they know it has been attempted elsewhere. Research being open and available to the broadest possible pool of readers also means it is more likely to be checked and reproduced. Furthermore, it can be argued that taxpayers who pay for much of the research published in journals have a right to access the information resulting from that investment without charge.

Publishing openly also has benefits for you as an author. Your work is likely to reach a larger audience meaning it may have a broader societal impact. Papers published openly are also more likely to have a citation advantage [TWJ+16].

An poster image of a train journey and along the way five reasons why you should share your research openly are annotated.

Fig. 14 Advantages to sharing your research openly The Turing Way project illustration by Scriberia. Used under a CC-BY 4.0 licence. Original version on Zenodo.

The Future of Open Access

The Open Access movement has pushed for change amongst publishers and many, both non-profit and for-profit, voluntarily make their articles openly available at the time of publication or within 6-12 months. They have also switched many of their journals from a closed, subscription model to an open one as a strategic business decision to increase their journal’s exposure and impact. However, many are critical of the increasing cost publishers are charging to publish in Open Access.

Further pushes to make more research open and advocate for change in slow-changing publishers has come from initiatives such as Plan S which is backed by a coalition of funders and stakeholders. UKRI has also recently announced a new Open Access policy [ukr21]for work they fund, requiring immediate open access for peer-reviewed research articles submitted for publication from 1st April 2022.

The push for open is also prevalent across the globe- initiatives such as SciELO which was created to meet the scientific communication needs of developing countries and provides an efficient way to increase visibility and access to scientific literature.

Funders have also taken action by becoming publishers themselves (referred to as Diamond Open Access). Platforms such as Open Research Europe and Wellcome Open Research are Open Access publishing platforms for researchers funded by that specific funder. Funders see this as a service for their grantees- allowing them a venue to publish rapidly and openly for free (funders cover the cost of the infrastructure and the article processing charges) and to have more flexibility than publishing in a journal. These platforms allow researchers to publish a range of article types beyond the ‘traditional research article’, such as data notes, software tool articles, methods, research notes and more. These funder supported platforms also help shift the needle and inform new policies on researcher assessment, such as moving away from impact factors.