6 Open Access

Open access (OA) means immediate, free and (relatively) unrestricted online access to digital literature. This has had huge impact in scholarly material, primarily peer-reviewed research articles in scholarly journals. OA was made possible by the advent of the Internet.

The first major international statement on open access was the Budapest Open Access Initiative in February 2002. This provided a definition of open access, and has a growing list of signatories. Two further statements followed: the Bethesda Statement on Open Access Publishing in June 2003 and the Berlin Declaration on Open Access to Knowledge in the Sciences and Humanities in October 2003.

OA has since become the subject of much discussion amongst researchers, academics, librarians, university administrators, funding agencies, government officials, commercial publishers, and society publishers. Although there is substantial (though not universal) agreement on the concept of OA itself, there is considerable debate and discussion about the economics of funding open access publishing, and the reliability and economic effects of self-archiving.

There are two main currents in the scholarly open access movement:

1. In OA self-archiving (sometimes known as the “green” road), authors publish in a subscription journal, but in addition make their articles freely accessible online, usually by depositing them in an institutional or central repository. The deposited OA article is often the accepted version of the article, before any editing or layout (the publisher’s contribution) has been applied. Falling within this model is also delayed OA, where an article maybe become “open” a specified time after it’s publication (anything from a month to a year or more).

2. In OA publishing (sometimes known as the “gold” road) authors publish in open access journals that make their articles freely accessible online immediately upon publication. In practice, Gold Road publishers operate often through publication fees, in which case the author (or his/her institution) pays for the cost of publishing the article.

The main reason authors make their articles openly accessible is to maximize their research impact. A study in 2001 first reported an Open Access citation impact advantage, and a growing number of studies have confirmed, with varying degrees of methodological rigor, that an open access article is more likely to be used and cited than one behind subscription barriers. Scholars are paid by research funders and/or their universities to do research; the published article is the report of the work they have done, rather than an item for commercial gain. The more the article is used, cited, applied and built upon, the better for research as well as for the researcher’s career (see Kristin Antelaman’s article on ClickUP).

The idea of open content is related to open access. However, open content is usually defined to include the general permission to modify a given work. Open access refers only to free and unrestricted availability without any further implications. In scientific publishing it is usual to keep an article’s content static and to associate it with a fixed author.

While open access is currently focussed on the scholarly research article, any content creator who wishes to can share work openly, and decide how to make their content available. Creative Commons provides a number of licenses with which authors may easily indicate which uses are allowed. One example is the Attribution 3.0 Unported licence that states that the user is free to share (i.e. to copy, distribute and transmit the work) and to remix (i.e. to adapt the work) – under the condition of attribution: the user must attribute the work to its original author, in the manner specified by the author or licensor, but not in any way that suggests that the author endorse the user or his/hers use of the work.

For the most part, the direct users of research articles are other researchers. Open access helps researchers as readers by opening up access to articles that their libraries do not subscribe to. One of the great beneficiaries of open access may be users in developing countries, where there are currently some universities with no journal subscriptions at all – although schemes exist for providing subscription-only scientific publications to those affiliated to institutions in developing countries at little or no cost. All researchers benefit from OA as no library can afford to subscribe to every scientific journal and most can only afford a small fraction of them. Open access extends the reach of research beyond its immediate academic circle. An OA article can be read by anyone – a professional in the field, a researcher in another field, a journalist, a politician or civil servant.

Open access to scholarly research is important to the public for a number of reasons. One of the arguments for public access to the scholarly literature is that most of it is paid for by taxpayers, who have a right to access the results of what they have funded. For example, people might wish to read the scholarly literature when they or a family member have an illness. Even those who do not care to read scholarly articles, however, benefit indirectly from open access. Even those who do not intend to read medical journals, for example, would probably prefer that their doctor and other health care professionals had access to them. As argued by open access advocates, open access speeds research progress, productivity, and knowledge translation; every researcher in the world can read an article, not just those whose library can afford to subscribe to the particular journal it appears in. Faster discoveries benefit everyone. High school and junior college students can gain the information literacy skills critical for the knowledge age.

Due to these benefits of open access, many governments are considering whether to mandate open access to publicly funded research. However, some organizations representing publishers feel that such mandates are an unwarranted governmental intrusion in the publishing marketplace. Much advocacy is taking place on both sides of this issue, pro-OA and contra-OA.

In developing nations, open access archiving and publishing acquire a unique importance. Scientists, health care professionals, and institutions in developing nations often do not have the capital necessary to access scholarly literature, although schemes exist to give them access for little or no cost. Many open access projects involve international collaboration.

Librarians are among the most vocal and active of open access advocates, because access to information is one of the central tenets of the profession. Open access promises to remove both the price barriers and the permission barriers that undermine library efforts to provide access to the journal literature. Many library associations have either signed major open access declarations, or created their own.

In South Africa the drive to OA practice is largely advocated by university libraries on the basis of the potential it has to enhance innovation and to bridging the digital divide. Commons-sense: Copyright alternatives, education and innovation in Africa is a project, initiated by the University of the Witwatersrand LINK Centre, to initiate informed debate around alternatives to traditional copyright for education and innovation in Africa. (The LINK Centre is the leading research and training body in the field of information and communications technology (ICT) policy, regulation and management in Southern Africa.) They hosted the conference “Commons-sense: Towards an African Digital Information Commons” in May 2005 that brought together people and projects from varying disciplines, all committed to a strong African role in regeneration of the public domain. The aim of the conference was to figure out how electronic networks and digital applications can be employed by Africans and African institutions in ways that will improve knowledge dissemination, creativity, innovation and economic development.

Creative commons

Creative Commons (cc) is an international organization lobbying for OA, with branches in various countries. The Creative Commons South Africa (ccSA)-branch was launched by the international cc Chairperson Larry Lessig at the above-mentioned conference in 2005. Lessig, an American academic and currently professor of law at Stanford Law School, is a proponent of reduced legal restrictions on copyright and trademark. He proposed the concept of “Free Culture” and is rallying against corporate and copyright barriers to creativity in the digital online environment.

Creative Commons developed an alternative copyright model whereby “some rights” stays reserved, while other are free. Basically this means that material is freely available to the user (without paying for it), but intellectual property is still acknowledge by citing the owner of the material correctly. This model is indicated in the Creative Commons copyright logo:

Another South African advocate for OA is the Open Society Initiative of Southern Africa (OSISA). OSISA’s aim is to promote and sustain the ideals, values, institutions and practice of open society. OSISA’s vision is that of a vibrant Southern African society in which people, free from material and other deprivation, understand their rights and responsibilities and participate democratically in all spheres of life. In pursuance of this vision, OSISA’s mission is to initiate and support programmes working towards open society ideals, and to advocate for these ideals in Southern Africa.

One interesting South African example of OA is the transformation of Human Sciences Research Council (HSRC) Press to an OA electronic platform – allowing free downloads of all publications and offering a high quality print-on-demand service for anyone who wants the paper versions. The outcome of this transformation to OA was that the sales turnover of the HSRC’s publishing department has risen by 300%. Researchers would generally download one chapter from a HSRC title, and if it is interesting or applicable enough, they would order the whole book through the available print-on-demand service.

We see something similar in the journal market as well, as much business is still done through print means.

The key issues here is in the creation of the license, which is a contract the consumer and the producer come into (in effect, a ‘terms of use’ agreement). By doing such, permissions for specific uses are pre-set. One should keep in mind that these licenses are irrevocable. That is to say, if you have given permission for open distribution, then you cannot revoke that right later. You can create a new edition with different rights, and even use different licenses with different consumers (business vs. personal), but what is set in place for that specific edition cannot be changed without consultation.

Some Criticism on Open Access

There are those – mostly publishers of printed media (campaigning for the intellectual property rights of their authors) – who think that open access is unnecessary or even harmful. It can be argued that there is no need for those outside major academic institutions to have access to primary publications, at least in some fields.

Critics to OA also think that increased access to, for example, biomedical research will lead to greater drains on the time of health care workers and decrease even more the time for patient care. In reply advocates generally point to those outside academic institutions, who may not be capable of doing the primary research but are both interested and capable of learning about it. The typical rejoinder of the skeptics is that this need can be better met through the existing inter-library loan system.

Many critics agree with open access advocates about the basic concept and philosophical desirability of open access. They doubt, however, that it will be possible to establish an economically sustainable open access publishing system, or that, even if possible, it is a sufficient priority. Some leaders of, for example, biomedical societies assert that the primary need in biomedicine is the increased availability of medical care, and the second, the increase of funding for research, and that any effort or money spent in widening access could be better spent on the primary goals.

There is some debate about whether a fully open access scholarly publishing system is economically viable. Many publishers think it obvious that all of the potential forms of open access will either harm their economic viability, or cause a less efficient operation. Those who are already open access publishers, obviously, tend to see open access publishing as economically viable; some are beginning to report profits, although others, such as Oxford University Press (international), report financial losses from their open access journals.

Others focus on particular forms. There are those arguing that open access journals will have economic or organizational defects that will make it unworkable. They also arguing that self-archiving will result in irreversible harm to the journals and the consequent deterioration of the scholarly publishing system.

There are those who think that no matter what approach is taken, the additional money required will be sizable, and doubt it will be forthcoming. Some librarians fear that universities will take it from their book budgets, leaving them in no better financial position. Some scientists fear it will be taken from their research grants or, that if research grants are increased, their number will be lessened.

Opponents of the open access model assert that the pay-for-access model is necessary to ensure that the publisher is adequately compensated for their work. Scholarly journal publishers using a pay-for-access model claim that the “gatekeeper” role they play, maintaining a scholarly reputation, arranging for peer review, and editing and indexing articles, require economic resources that are not supplied under an open access model. Many journals are still produced in print (some, exclusively in print with no online counterpart), which complicates a transition to open access publishing, which only applies to online journals.

Opponents claim that open access is not necessary to ensure fair access to developing nations; differential pricing, or financial aid from developed countries or institutions can make access to proprietary journals affordable. There are a number of programmes already in place which use the sales in more affluent markets to subsidise poorer ones. In such a case OA is an answer for the readers, but not for the publishers without the help of a grant.

Predatory Publishing

It must also be said that within the OA environment exists the so-called predatory journals. Under the guise of Gold Road OA, these journals can publish works without adequate peer-review, and sometimes even plagiarise works to create the illusion of a high publication rate. Predatory publishing is its own field within the academic journal environment, but its existence is largely a result of the opportunities granted by the social appeal of OA. Often this is practised by conference companies who will publish the proceedings, and accept work without adequate review in order to host the event and ensure attendance fees are paid.


Class presentation here

Adapted from PUB 310 Class Notes (DR RMR Venter 2008)
Further reading on the importance of peer review:




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