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Publications Explainer

What Is “Open Access”?

  • Last Update
  • September 2018
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Open access is a publishing and distribution model that makes scholarly research literature—much of which is 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 the general public—democratizing access to knowledge, accelerating discovery and fueling innovation.

Why use open access?

Before the open access model existed, almost all peer-reviewed articles based on scholarly research were published in print journals whose subscription fees could be prohibitively expensive—despite the fact that authors are not paid for their articles.

These journals were generally only available to the general public at well-funded university libraries, primarily in the developed world. This meant that doctors treating patients with HIV and AIDS in remote regions of Africa, for instance, often 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 locally.

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 a $10 billion industry by creating new open access journals and urging researchers to report the results of their work in institutional archives.

However, two subsequent initiatives which were inspired by the Budapest Open Access Initiative—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. Scholarly researchers, libraries, students, patient advocates, and small businesses, among others, have organized their members and driven the effort to implement the open access model.

Who’s using open access now?

Currently, there are more than 12,000 academic journals accessible in the Directory of Open Access Journals, and more than 3,500 archives are included in the Directory of Open Access Repositories. About 28 percent of peer-reviewed articles today are open access, and the number is increasing with each passing year.

Research funders are playing an increasingly important role in accelerating the adoption of Open Access. The Wellcome Trust in the United Kingdom has lead the way, becoming the world’s first funder to mandate open access for publication of the research it funds. Scores of other research funders—including the largest funder of research in the world, the United States. National Institutes of Health—have subsequently implemented similar policies. In 2013, meanwhile, the Obama Administration issued an executive directive instructing all U.S. science funding agencies to provide public access to federally supported research outputs.

Academic and research institutions have also embraced open access, with faculty at more than 850 colleges and universities voting to adopt campus-wide open access policies. Harvard, MIT, the University of Nairobi, and the entire University of California System have joined the ranks of institutions that have open access mandates.

What’s next for the open access movement?

To make open access the default for scholarly publishing, the movement is working to align incentives so that scholars can share their work openly and construct affordable, sustainable, and equitable business models.

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

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

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