What Is “Open Access”?

Open access is an alternative publishing and distribution model that makes scholarly research literature—most of which is already funded by taxpayers around the world—freely available to the public online, without restrictions.

Harnessing the power of the internet, open access brings the results of academic research to unprecedented numbers of scientists, university professors, medical researchers, patients, inventors, students, and others.

Why use open access?

Before the open access model existed, almost all peer-reviewed articles based on scholarly research were published in corporate-owned print journals, whose subscription fees were often prohibitively expensive—despite the fact that authors are not paid for their articles. Publishers rarely invest in the actual research and typically provide little added value in the articles’ preparation and distribution.

These journals were available to the general public only at university libraries in wealthy countries. This meant that doctors treating patients with HIV and AIDS in remote regions of Africa, for instance, could not access complete articles describing the results of the latest medical research on treatments, even when the research upon which these articles were based was undertaken in their remote regions.

How did the open access movement begin?

Concentrated, collaborative, international work on the open access model accelerated significantly after December 2001, when an Open Society Foundations–sponsored meeting in Budapest developed a statement of principles on open access to research literature. This statement, the Budapest Open Access Initiative, called for radical change to an $8-billion industry by creating new open access journals and urging researchers to report the results of their work in institutional archives. Many scholars regarded the statement with skepticism, and some academic publishers expressed ridicule.

However, two subsequent initiatives—the Bethesda Statement from the Howard Hughes Medical Institute, and the Berlin Declaration, which originated from the Max Planck Society—broadened and strengthened the base of support for open access. Communities of library administrators and scholarly researchers have organized their members and driven the effort to build momentum for implementing the open access model.

Who’s using open access now?

About 30 percent of peer-reviewed articles today are open access.  Nearly 10,000 academic journals are accessible in the Directory of Open Access Journals, and more than 2,500 archives are included in the Directory of Open Access Repositories.

The Wellcome Trust in the United Kingdom was the world’s first funder to mandate open access for publication of the research it funds. More than 300 institutions followed suit, including the largest funder of research in the world, the National Institutes of Health in the United States.

Many of Harvard University’s schools have adopted open access mandates. One of the market leaders in scholarly journal publishing, Springer, vindicated the model in 2008, when it acquired open access publisher BioMed Central.

In 2013, the Obama Administration issued an executive directive instructing the largest U.S. funding agencies to provide public access to federally supported research. 

What’s next for the open access movement?

In 2012, participants at a 10th-anniversary meeting of the Budapest Open Access Initiative developed a new set of recommendations for making open access the default method for distributing peer-reviewed research in every field and country by 2022. The recommendations address issues such as:

  • ensuring sustainability;
  • increasing support for open access in developing countries; and
  • developing new opportunities for measuring the impact of research.

What are the Open Society Foundations doing to advance open access?

We support the organizations spearheading the development of open access policies globally, including SPARC (Scholarly Publishing and Academic Resources Coalition) North America, SPARC Europe, the Electronic Information for Libraries, and the student-led Right to Research Coalition. These grantees have championed the development of open access policies in North America, Europe, and over 45 developing and transition countries.