Open Access

What is "open access"?

The term “open access” is used in a number of different contexts. One model, sometimes referred to as “author pays” has a specific economic component whereby an author or sponsor pays the publisher to have his or her article freely available for access by the public. Some publishers apply this model to all of their published articles in a journal, whereas a number of subscription-based publishers offer hybrid models. In those arrangements, an author or a sponsor may have an option to pay a specified fee, which supports the costs to make the article freely available on the publisher’s platform immediately upon publication. Other publishers voluntarily open public access to research articles on their sites after a delay or embargo period that varies depending on the discipline, the type of journal, and the impact that time may have on the value and usefulness of a journal’s articles and its subscription base. Open access is also used interchangeably to refer to public access or free access. An article may be offered free of charge via the Internet (e.g., through an author's personal or professional web site, institutional repositories, government databases, conference sites, pre-print servers and other sites). However, these sites may contain different versions of an article with information that can vary significantly. In contrast, the publisher site contains the peer reviewed, edited, formatted, tagged and enhanced version of record (VoR) along with any post-publication annotations.

Why is open access getting a lot of attention lately?

In 2008, a policy emerged from the National Institutes of Health (NIH) that requires its grantees to submit final peer-reviewed manuscripts upon acceptance for publication by an independent publisher to a government database called PubMed Central, a freely accessible database, within a year of publication. The NIH uses the manuscripts primarily to support its own operations. Similarly, there have been mandates from other funding bodies (particularly in Europe) and universities to require Web posting of author manuscripts, under varying terms and conditions.

However, NIH and the funding bodies also make these articles available to the public, the same market whose subscriptions financially support the journal publishing process. Discussion of the impact of the NIH policy and these other open access mandates has been increasing. The NIH does not provide any funding to publishers.

It should be noted that the NIH has not taken advantage of the opportunity to make accessible to the public the reports that it receives from grantees to file an annual progress report and a final report upon completion of the grant activities. These reports have generally been in the public domain, and many other funding agencies, such as the National Science Foundation (NSF) have similar requirements. Articles derived from the research are written in a different format from the reports, and benefit tremendously from the peer review process, editing functions, formatting and features such as adding links that publishers provide. Policies that mandate open access publishing unilaterally force scientists to limit themselves to open-access journals or hybrid journals or risk violating the agreements they have with their publishers. Scientists should not be limited to publishing in a few compliant journals. Doing so limits intellectual freedom and scholarly independence and is, quite simply, against the public interest. Scientists and their publishers understand and support the government’s goal to broaden the accessibility of research, and they have incentives and are committed to making research widely available. However, forcing publishers to adopt a singular business model that might not be appropriate is not supported by sound economic policy.

Who pays for publishing in an open access model?

This is not always clear. What is clear is that publishing is neither inexpensive nor free. The public benefits from the scientific publishing industry producing organized, high quality, peer-reviewed journals. The existing business models of most scientific journals are founded on copyright protections that enable them to exclusively disseminate/distribute the content of their journals. Under mandated access models, the choices these protections provide publishers could be damaged and lost.

If journals move to open access models, the burden of costs of publishing and peer review will shift to authors or their institutions. Some existing open-access journals operate on an author-pays model, and authors or their institutions pay several thousand dollars per article to publish in them. In some instances, publishers receive grant funding to start up and sustain their publishing programs as well as supplement the actual costs of publication beyond the fees paid by the authors. These open-access journals are relatively new in the market and are the exception, however, and it is unclear whether these journals will be able to continue to provide services once their initial funding expires.

In the predominant sustainable business model, subscriptions paid by the end users provide the bulk of the revenue that supports the vast majority of scientific journals. Most journals do not require authors to pay large sums of money for publication but rather recoup their costs by charging fees for access to libraries and individuals who need and use the information.

The big question is: Who is to pay to fund new access fees? Given the number of scientific articles published each year, the total paid for fees could be substantial. For example, NIH estimates 80,000 manuscripts each year relate to the research NIH funds. If NIH were required to pay the cost for each of these manuscripts to be published (with estimates for first-copy publishing costs in a range starting around $1,500 to as high as $10,000, depending on the journal*), it would amount to hundreds of millions of additional taxpayer dollars per year. Perhaps the money would reduce the same pool of taxpayer dollars that funds research — resulting in hundreds of millions of dollars that could be spent to fund more, valuable biomedical research. *King, Donald. “The cost of journal publishing: a literature review and commentary,” Learned Publishing, 20: 85 — 106, April 2007.

What are some of the ways people can access articles for free?

Most people involved in scientific research and in need of scientific information already have access to the articles in journals through library subscriptions at their affiliated institutions. Most university libraries have a mandate as part of their mission to provide onsite patrons to access their large collections of journals -- both paper and electronic. The digital environment has greatly expanded the volume of information that academic libraries can offer their users, thanks to consortia and other publisher licensing arrangements that provide access to titles in addition to the subscriptions that are maintained by a particular library. Most public universities and libraries make their print journal collections available to users from the community. They also offer access to journal collections through interlibrary loan, a service which connects a wide and diverse network of cooperating libraries and that provide users with access to information far beyond what is held locally.

For people who cannot take advantage of library collections, there are many alternatives. Some medical publishers or associations provide free copies or low-priced electronic downloads to members or the public who ask for research information for their own or a family member's medical condition. Most publishers have made provisions for their articles to be posted to publicly accessible databases for free access after a period of time.

Publishers created and introduced patientINFORM in 2006 in cooperation with several Voluntary Health Organizations. patientINFORM is an online service that provides patients and their caregivers access to some of the most up-to-date, reliable, and important research available about the diagnosis and treatment of specific disease groups at no cost to the patient. With patientINFORM, consumers have the ability to not only read the latest research, but also to find help interpreting that information and accessing additional materials. By making it easier to understand research findings, patientINFORM empowers healthcare consumers to have improved discussions with their physicians and make informed decisions about care.

To read more about patientINFORM, visit

Should open access be mandatory?

No. Scientists should be able to publish in the journals of their choice where they feel their work will be best reviewed by their peers and where its publication will have the greatest potential to advance their field of science. Publishers do offer a variety of options, including “author pays” and sponsorship models to help authors comply with the requirements of funding agencies to make articles publicly available. However, policies that mandate “open access” publishing as the only option, without providing support in the form of publication fees or sponsorship, puts an unreasonable burden on an author and limits effective scientific communication.