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Open Access

Open access is movement to put research literature online and make it freely available to anyone with an Internet connection. It emerged in the early 2000s as a result of several events. First, and most obviously was the development of the Internet itself as an effective and cheap mechanism for distributing information. Second, over the past 30-40 years there has been a skyrocketing of journal prices, particularly in the Science, Technical and Medical fields. The result is that university libraries have had to make hard choices about which journals and databases to subscribe to and this inevitably has meant that researchers do not always have access to the research materials they need in order to conduct thorough and rigorous research. This is known as the “crisis in scholarly communications.”

The developing world is one of the worst hit by the crisis. A recent survey of medical institutions in countries with low Gross National Product by the World Health Organizations found that 56% had not a single journal subscription over the past 5 years. When leading edge medical research that could save lives is published in expensive journals that only the rich can afford, it presents a very stark image of the values held by our society, and it is a picture that many scientists are aiming to change through open access.

It’s also worth noting, as one of the leading open access advocates, Subbiah Arunachalam points out, that the crisis points both ways. It is not just the developing world that loses through access restrictions, but the developed world too, is “impoverished” by the current system. He says, "It is seldom recognised that the international scientific community is similarly impoverished. Without the input of knowledge from the disadvantaged regions, development initiatives may suffer from inappropriate programmes. An example of this can be seen in the case of tuberculosis. It is now known that isolates of Mycobacterium tuberculosis from India differ genetically from those taken in the West, and are different again from those isolated in China, so the BCG vaccines developed in the West have reduced efficiency. [23] Similarly, it has been shown that in diabetes, what works in the United Kingdom might not work in India and vice versa, as environmental and genetic factors have been shown to play a part. [24,25]

Putting research freely online

Open access advocates point out that the vast majority of scientific research has been paid for by the tax-payer in the form of publicly funded institutions and grant making bodies. They question why tax-payer funded research should be paid for twice - first by paying the salaries of the researchers, and second by libraries that must pay frequently gigantic sums for the results. As an example, consider that the price of a Toytota Corolla costs less than a year’s subscription to the journal, Applied Polymer Science.

Consider, too, that scholarly journals do not pay authors for their articles, which have historically been given freely away since the birth of the scholarly journal in the 17thC.

In 2002, the Open Society Institute convened a meeting with leading open access advocates in Budapest, Hungary which resulted in a formal declaration known as the Budapest Open Access Initiative.

This was followed by two more meetings and resolutions that were named after the cities in which they were held: the Berlin declaration (2003) and the Bethesda Statement (2003)

They contain definitions of Open Access (as granting to all users a free, irrevocable, worldwide, right of access to, and a license to copy, use, distribute, transmit and display the work publicly and to make and distribute derivative works, in any digital medium for any responsible purpose, subject to proper attribution of authorship) and action plans for enabling Open Access through electronic archives and Open Access publishing. These two strategies for enabling OA are often called the Green Road (OA archiving) and the Gold Road (OA publishing).

Self-archiving (Green Road)

OA archives are electronic depositories where scholars can upload the pre-published results of their research and make them freely accessible to anyone. Today, they are frequently administered by university libraries or research institutes, but they began in subject-based areas such as physics as a grass-roots solution to the long delay physicists confronted in getting their results out to their colleagues through traditional publication channels. Scientists realized that the Internet provided a way for immediately releasing the results of their research, which others were relying on for moving ahead with their own research. The arXiv hosted at Cornell University is one of the oldest and largest of these subject-based archives, which now contains research material not just in physics but also maths, computer science, quantitative biology and other areas as well.

OA archives in humanities fields have also sprung up in the meantime, such as CSeARCH, which contains pre- and post-published articles in philosophy, cultural studies and other related areas. It was founded by Gary Hall, a London-based media theorist and one of the leading advocates of Open Access in the humanities.

Since the early 2000s, university libraries around the world have begun setting up institutional repositories where faculty can deposit their research. Growing numbers of individual departments at universities around the world have adopted “Open Access mandates” where faculty members agree to release all of their research output in Open Access. Such Open Access mandates are also being implemented at university-wide levels. The first such university-wide OA mandate was passed by the Queensland University of Technology (check) which has emerged as one of the world’s leading Open Access institutional advocates. Some major funding bodies have also instituted Open Access mandates for the research they fund. Examples are the National Institute of Health in the US, and the Wellcome Trust in the UK, which is one of the largest funders of biomedical and life science research. Since 2005, it requires that “all papers resulting from research it funds or part-funds are made freely available as soon as possible, and in any event within six months of the publisher's date of final publication, by depositing in PubMed Central.”

What can one deposit?

Typically, IRs accept both pre- and post-prints. The term pre-prints refers to the version of an article an author sent to a journal, which has been accepted for publication. A post-print is the final version of the article, incorporating the changes made after peer review. Although post-prints may not always be in the final laid-out version of the published article, they are fully academically acceptable, citable sources of the published text. Not everything in IRs have to have been published. IRs can also contain other materials such as datasets, conference papers. The CSeARCH archive goes even further to say anyone can deposit anything at all that they want to. They make no restrictions on content, finding it an interesting experiment to see what people do with the opening possibilities.

Open Access is not pirated material

The contents of IRs are legal and are governed by the copyright laws of the country they are in. Authors give permission to their Libraries to host, display, serve and preserve the copies in the Institutional Repository. When authors have transferred their copyright to publishers, they must request permission to deposit. This can be quite time-consuming and onerous so the University of Nottingham hosts a website that lists most of the major publishers’ policies on Open Access archiving. If you look at the site, Sherpa Romeo, you will see publishers listed according to colour. A “Green” publisher is one that allows authors to display both pre- and post-prints and publisher versions electronically in an IR or departmental website without needing to obtain express permission. “Blue” publishers permit authors to deposit post-print (ie final draft post-refereeing) or publisher's version/PDF. “Yellow” publishers allow authors to archive pre-print (ie pre-refereeing), while “White” publishers do not formally support archiving, meaning that permission must be specifically requested in order to do so. The vast majority (92 per cent of some 9,000 journals surveyed by the SHERPA/ROMEO project) of publishers have agreed to allow authors to archive published papers in their institute's archive.

Open Access publishing (Gold Road)

OA publishing refers to free scholarly materials that are in their final form on the Internet, in contrast to pre- and post-prints which are usually finally published elsewhere, in non-Open Access forms. We’ve already looked at one of the most prestigious OA publisher in the sciences, the Public Library of Science (PLoS), which was launched in 2005 by a Nobel Prize Laureate. PLoS journals have rapidly become leading journals in their medical and scientific fields. PLoS Biology now has the highest “impact factor” of any journal in its field. Impact factors, the measure by which scholarly journals are formally ranked, consider aspects such as how often articles from a journal are cited by other researchers, among other things. In fact one of the additional benefits Open Access is often thought to bring is its ability to raise an author’s profile. By making your work freely available to others, more people will see and read your research, increasing the possibility that it will be talked about and cited in future papers.

Declarations of Independence

A “declaration of independence” is when editors from a journal resign en masse in order to found a journal in the same field (and often with a similar title) with another publisher that has more open access policies. Peter Suber describes how journal declarations of independence usually take the form of two events: “First, an editor or group of editors resigns from the journal in order to protest its high subscription price or audience-limiting access rules. This is usually accompanied by a public statement explaining ‘the causes which impel them to the separation’ (to quote Thomas Jefferson). Second, some of the resigning editors create a new free or affordable alternative journal to compete with the first and to embody their vision of wide access.”

The term "declaration of independence" for this phenomenon is borrowed from the U.S. Declaration of Independence. The first declaration of independence by journal editors came in 1989 when Editor Eddy van der Maarel and most of his editorial board resigned from Vegetatio (W. Junk, then Nijhoff, then Kluwer) in order to launch the Journal of Vegetation Science (Opulus Press and the International Association for Vegetation Science).

In November 1998, Michael Rosenzweig and the rest of his editorial board resigned from Evolutionary Ecology (Chapman & Hall, then International Thomson, now Kluwer), which Rosenzweig had launched in 1986, in order to create Evolutionary Ecology Research.

In 1998 most of the editorial board of the Journal of Academic Librarianship resigned to protest the large hike in the subscription price imposed by Pergamon-Elsevier after it bought the journal from JAI Press. Several of the editors who resigned then created Portal: Libraries and the Academy at Johns Hopkins University Press.

See Suber’s blog page for more instances of journal declarations of independence.

OA Journal listings

Open J-Gate and the Directory of Open Access Journals

These are directories of OA journals in all disciplines. There are now nearly 5000 peer-reviewed journals listed in the DOAJ, and 6677 in Open J-Gate (nearly 4000 of them peer-reviewed).

Like self-archiving, Open Access publishing has so far been mostly driven by the STM fields. Bio-Med Central is an OA publisher in the bio-medical fields. It publishes 207 peer-reviewed journals. Other commercial OA publishers are Hindawi, Bentham Open and Co-Action Publishing. These OA publishers make money not by charging access to readers through library subscriptions but through author-fees. To publish in an OA journal with these publishers, authors, through their institutions or funding bodies, pay a fee of up to 3000 pounds which covers the publisher’s copy-editing and layout costs, technical and administrative infrastructure - and in some cases such as Bio-Med Central, is also expected to generate a tidy profit for its Dutch publisher Springer. The potential for publishers to exploit the Open Access model and charge higher and higher author-side fees is a topic of some concern within the OA community, and some advocates such as Steven Harnad believe OA publishing is a distraction from the real goal of OA, which could better be achieved by the Green Road of self-archiving.

Harnad’s position may prove correct for disciplines such as the STM fields. However, humanities academics often have different concerns than their scientific colleagues. Take speed of publication for example. Self-archiving was developed by physicists to by-pass the slow production speeds of journal publishing by releasing results to the physics community as soon as they were made. In contrast, in fields such as English and History, there is less urgency to make the results of scholarly enquiry known. More important for scholars in these disciplines is the depth of the argument and the complexity of analysis which can take many years to complete. Although many publishers now allow scholars to self-archive their journal articles after a certain time period in the expectation that a piece of research in the sciences has a certain “shelf-life”, after which it becomes less valuable, this is certainly not the case in the humanities, where classic works of scholarship continue to sell long after their publication date. For this reason, publishers of books in the humanities are often reluctant to allow authors to place electronic copies of their work on the web.

Scholar-led publishing

Some examples of how scholars are using digital technologies to by-pass traditional publishing channels and create their own presses are:, Open Humanities Press, ETC Press.

Open Textbooks and Open Educational Resources

Hand in hand with the Open Access movement is the movement to put teaching materials such as textbooks freely on the Internet. This movement is known as “Open Educational Resources” or OER.

From the Open textbooks Faculty Statement:

Open Textbooks and other open educational resources present an affordable, comparable and flexible alternative to expensive course materials:

• Open textbooks are available online at no cost to students, and they can be printed for a low cost in various formats. This ensures all students have equal access to the content, while still preserving the option to use a conventional textbook format.

• Open textbooks that are of comparable quality to commercial textbooks are already available. An example of an open textbook is Caltech Professor R. Preston McAfee’s Introduction to Economic Analysis, which has been adopted at NYU and Harvard.

• Open textbooks are flexible. Instructors are free to use a particular edition indefinitely or customize content if desired.

Statement of Intent

As faculty members, we affirm that it is our prerogative and responsibility to select course materials that are pedagogically most appropriate for our classes. We also affirm that it is consistent with this principle to seek affordable and accessible course materials for our classes whenever possible. This includes “open textbooks,” which are textbooks offered online to students at no cost.

Therefore, we the undersigned declare our intent to:

• Seek and consider open textbooks and other open educational resources when choosing course materials.

• Give preference to a low or no cost educational resource such as an open textbook over an expensive, traditional textbook if it best fits the needs of a class.

• Encourage institutions to develop support for the use of open textbooks and other open educational resources.

Open Textbook Catalog

Flatworld Knowledge,

A number of universities in the US have begun putting the lectures and reading material of courses they offer online and making it available to anyone. In April 2001 MIT announced that it would make the content of all of its courses available for free online through the OpenCourseWare (OCW) initiative. Stanford University and Columbia have also put courses freely online. The thinking behind MIT’s initiative is that universities do not own the knowledge that they transmit to students for such knowledge belongs to the world community. The value that MIT and other universities ‘add’ to that knowledge is the educational experience of being in class and on campus - and of course the degrees that these universities confer.

Another OER project, Connexions, is based at Rice University in Texas. Connexions is an “open content repository of high-quality educational materials.” Originally conceived as a Free Software textbook repository, Connexions has emerged as a source for community-created “modules” of content: small chunks of teachable information, like two or three pages in a textbook.

According to Chris Kelty, who has written an anthropological study of the Connexions project, Connexions emerged “as more than just a factory of knowledge—it would be a community or culture developing richly associative and novel kinds of textbooks—and as much more than just distance education.”

Whereas OCW simply puts MIT’s courses online in order to reach a global audience, for the founders of the Rice project, as Kelty notes, “Connexions is about ‘communities,’ about changing the way scholars collaborate and create knowledge.” Connexions is thus “a radical experiment in the collaborative creation of educational materials, one that builds on the insights of Open Source [software].”

Another community-based OER project is WikiEducator.

Wikieducator is a wiki where educators can collaborate on developing free content for e-learning, build open educational resources and plan education projects together.

Peer2Peer and Distributed Universities

The next step along the continuum of open education is the free online university. P2P University and the University of the People are two examples of attempts to harness open and free resources through the Internet and offer courses to anyone with an Internet connection without charge. To date, neither of these universities offer fully accredited courses, although both of their websites state that they are engaged in negotiations with accrediting bodies and hope to be able to offer this soon. In the meantime, they work on the principle that there is a ‘surplus’ within the educational community, much like the Open Source Software community, that might be tapped to enable students who cannot afford the 35,000USD a year (that MIT, for e.g. charges) to acquire an education through the volunteer efforts of retired but still professionally active professors and of student teachers.

Benefits of Openness

Included in this week’s readings are the results of a survey investigating the the value of openness in scientific problem solving by Karim Lakhani, Lars Bo Jeppesen, Peter A. Lohse & Jill A. Panetta. Their finding is that “Openness regarding current scientific problems via the broadcasting of problem information to a diverse community of solvers can yield effective solution rates”.

From the abstract: “Openness and free information sharing amongst scientists are supposed to be core norms of the scientific community. However, many studies have shown that these norms are not universally followed. Lack of openness and transparency means that scientific problem solving is constrained to a few scientists who work in secret and who typically fail to leverage the entire accumulation of scientific knowledge available.

We present evidence of the efficacy of problem solving when disclosing problem information. The method’s application to 166 discrete scientific problems from the research laboratories of 26 firms is illustrated. Problems were disclosed to over 80,000 independent scientists from over 150 countries.

We show that disclosure of problem information to a large group of outside solvers is an effective means of solving scientific problems. The approach solved one-third of a sample of problems that large and well-known R & D-intensive firms had been unsuccessful in solving internally. Problem-solving success was found to be associated with the ability to attract specialized solvers with range of diverse scientific interests. Furthermore, successful solvers solved problems at the boundary or outside of their fields of expertise, indicating a transfer of knowledge from one field to others. ”

From their conclusion: “Diverse problem solvers have the potential to outperform groups of high-ability but homogenous problem solvers . It is reasonable to think that an open-source-like setting with transparency, access, and collaboration throughout the scientific problem-solving process has the potential to deliver even higher problem resolution rates.”

Openness is good for research, teaching and learning.


Watch Video: Gary Hall from Open Humanities Press on the Distributed University, Humanitech, Irvine, Feb 2010.

Desmond Tutu on the importance of freedom in education

Discuss the implications of free and open education.


Create a course module for open access at your institution on Wikieducator or Connexions