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Copyright Across Campus: Open Access

A Very Brief Introduction to Open Access by Peter Suber

Open-access (OA) literature is digital, online, free of charge, and free of most copyright and licensing restrictions. What makes it possible is the internet and the consent of the author or copyright-holder.

In most fields, scholarly journals do not pay authors, who can therefore consent to OA without losing revenue. In this respect scholars and scientists are very differently situated from most musicians and movie-makers, and controversies about OA to music and movies do not carry over to research literature.

OA is entirely compatible with peer review, and all the major OA initiatives for scientific and scholarly literature insist on its importance. Just as authors of journal articles donate their labor, so do most journal editors and referees participating in peer review.

OA literature is not free to produce, even if it is less expensive to produce than conventionally published literature. The question is not whether scholarly literature can be made costless, but whether there are better ways to pay the bills than by charging readers and creating access barriers. Business models for paying the bills depend on how OA is delivered.

For a longer introduction, with live links for further reading, see my Open Access Overview,

"A Very Brief Introduction to Open Access" by Peter Suber is licensed under CC BY 3.0

Green vs Gold

There are two primary vehicles for delivering OA to research articles: OA journals and OA archives or repositories.

  • OA archives or repositories (Green OA) do not perform peer review, but simply make their contents freely available to the world. They may contain unrefereed preprints, refereed postprints, or both. Archives may belong to institutions, such as universities and laboratories, or disciplines, such as physics and economics. Authors may archive their preprints without anyone else's permission, and a majority of journals already permit authors to archive their postprints. When archives comply with the metadata harvesting protocol of the Open Archives Initiative, then they are interoperable and users can find their contents without knowing which archives exist, where they are located, or what they contain. There is now open-source software for building and maintaining OAI-compliant archives and worldwide momentum for using it.


  • OA journals (Gold OA) perform peer review and then make the approved contents freely available to the world. Their expenses consist of peer review, manuscript preparation, and server space. OA journals pay their bills very much the way broadcast television and radio stations do: those with an interest in disseminating the content pay the production costs upfront so that access can be free of charge for everyone with the right equipment. Sometimes this means that journals have a subsidy from the hosting university or professional society. Sometimes it means that journals charge a processing fee on accepted articles, to be paid by the author or the author's sponsor (employer, funding agency). OA journals that charge processing fees usually waive them in cases of economic hardship. OA journals with institutional subsidies tend to charge no processing fees. OA journals can get by on lower subsidies or fees if they have income from other publications, advertising, priced add-ons, or auxiliary services. Some institutions and consortia arrange fee discounts. Some OA publishers waive the fee for all researchers affiliated with institutions that have purchased an annual membership. There's a lot of room for creativity in finding ways to pay the costs of a peer-reviewed OA journal, and we're far from having exhausted our cleverness and imagination.


"A Very Brief Introduction to Open Access" by Peter Suber is licensed under CC BY 3.0. Modified by Laura Hanscom.

PHD Comics: What is Open Access?

The Other Side of the "Gold" Coin: Predatory Publishers

There has been a major shakeup in the traditional scholarly communication process with the rise of Open Access (OA) options. But, as is often the case in times of major change, there are those who are unscrupulously looking to take advantage of emerging new models of publications.

There are many reputable scholarly journals that have a “gold” OA option, where the author, or their institution on the author’s behalf, pays an article processing charge (APC) after which the publisher’s version is made OA.  Some of the factors that identify these high quality journals are: transparent operation practices, professional websites, clear retraction policies, they are named in standard journal directories or are widely featured in library databases, and have editorial boards reflective of the subject and geographic coverage the journal title claims to have .

With the pressure that many academics feel to “publish or perish,” the “gold” OA option has increased the number of predatory publishers. These publishers take the APC but do not provide the same meticulous peer-review, editing, proofreading, and digital preservation that a reputable publisher would. The article is published online, and is freely accessible, but often on very poor websites.

Jeffrey Beall’s website, Scholarly Open Access, is an excellent resource for more information on this topic and has a regularly updated list of predatory publishers.