Open Access

Professional and scholarly publishers support innovation and development around the world by seeking the widest possible distribution of peer-reviewed research articles. They invest in thorough review processes, cutting-edge distribution technologies, and extensive archiving and curation practices to ensure the quality, integrity and long-term viability of the scholarly communications ecosystem.

One popular method of distribution, open access, provides free access to digital research articles without cost to the reader. AAP and members of its Professional and Scholarly Publishing division are working with researchers, librarians and funding bodies to find the right balance between making this high-quality content publicly available while also applying business models that sustain the investment necessary to produce and maintain it. Publishers also have taken other steps to ensure that the public, both in the U.S. and abroad, has free or low-cost access to important scholarly research articles and journals.

    Open Access Journals 101

    What is open access? Open access refers to digital distribution of high-quality, peer-reviewed research articles through free public access permanently over the Internet. Users may read the full texts of open access articles without charge, and generally reuse the content, subject to various licensing terms created for open access.   

    What are “gold” and “green” open access? These are two principal models that describe when an article becomes available to the public at no charge. In gold open access, a research article is available free to the public immediately upon publication. In green open access, an article becomes available free to the public after a designated period of time, usually between six and 24 months. Each model is funded differently.

    How are articles in traditional subscription-based journals available? Articles in traditional subscription-based journals are available upon publication to faculty, researchers and students through university or institutional libraries that subscribe to the journal. Libraries that do not have access to a particular journal can also provide readers with copies of articles through interlibrary loan, a practice that is sanctioned by Section 108(g) of the Copyright Act wherein libraries can request copies of individual articles from other libraries that subscribe.

    How have journals been funded traditionally? Until 2005, journal articles were nearly all subscription-based, whether print or digital. Given sufficiently long periods, subscription revenues covered publishers’ costs of adding the value that leads to high-quality journals. Since 2005, open access journals have begun to emerge as a growing segment of the research literature output alongside the subscription-based model.

    How is open access funded? Providing open access to journal articles can pose challenges for publishers to recoup their costs of creating, distributing and archiving research articles. Publishers, however, have responded with several open access funding models:

    • In “gold” open access, the authors (or their institutions or research funders) usually pay an APC (article processing charge) to publish the article. This fee ranges from several hundred to several thousand dollars per article, depending on the journal.
    • In “green” open access, a research article is available through paid subscriptions for a specified amount of time designated by the research funder (an “embargo” period), and then opened up for free. Articles may be made freely available on the publisher’s site, or they may be posted in a repository (institutional or government, such as PubMed Centralon the funder’s site, or on the author’s website.  
    • In a third funding model, considered “hybrid” open access, a journal is basically subscription-based but also offers authors the option to pay an APC to open the article to the public for free upon publication.
    • Yet another, less-commonly-found model is membership open access, in which a library or institution pays for a membership that allows for a certain number of articles to be published and made available for free upon publication, if the articles are accepted and pass peer review. 

    Open Access Must Be Sustainable

    The business of journal publishers is to disseminate and advance discoveries and scholarship. The Internet era has led to many new business models that were inconceivable in the print environment, including public access to full-text articles, via open access, at no charge to the user. The industry is engaged in finding ways to make open access economically sustainable—a necessity for continued innovation and advancement of society and a goal that aligns directly with the objectives of open access.  

    Yet whether an online article is available via open access or by subscription, journal publishers are responsible for upholding the same high-quality standards as for print, and they invest considerable editorial, technological and financial resources to produce and preserve the scholarly record for the generations to come. These costs are an economic reality and must be accounted for when developing a viable open access environment.

    Achieving sustainability

    AAP and member publishers are invested in the long-term quality and availability of scholarly research and want to help build a competitive ecosystem with diverse and sustainable business models to broaden public access. AAP and publishers therefore support open access policies and practices that enable them to sustain the high-caliber services that connect the scholarly community and drive research, development and new discoveries.

    For gold open access, sustainability can often be accomplished by authors who pay a journal’s APCs or by research funders or institutions that pay the APCs either as part of their grants or through a separate fund.

    The most controversy around sustainability arises around green open access, where funders impose an embargo period limiting how long a journal publisher may offer an article via subscription before the article must be made available for free public access without offering additional funding to support the costs of publication. The length of these embargo periods have tended not to be based on any evidence of how journals are actually accessed and used over time, and they often may not be long enough for publishers to recover their costs of producing, managing and curating digital articles. This is particularly true where one-size-fits-all approaches are imposed, such as in federal agencies that are leaning toward a standardized 12-month embargo period for green open access.

    Because U.S. federal agencies fund a large portion of current research, and private sector research funding organizations generally follow suit, AAP is concerned that the federal agency policies, and current legislation under consideration in Congress, may become the de facto standard for green open access across the U.S. and around the world.

    To help ensure a future where peer review and vetted editorial content are still maintained in published journal literature, open access policies need to consider the inherent costs of producing reliable content in order to support a sustainable system for making such content available for free.


    OSTP: Federal Mandates for Open Access

    Despite more than a decade of discussion about this issue, full access to all results of federally funded research (including reports, publications and associated data) remains a work in progress. Providing access to this content has proven difficult for many reasons, including scholarly practices and competitiveness; the patenting and technology transfer policies of many research institutions; and challenges related to ensuring the quality and sustainability of scholarly publishing.

    This has begun to change, however. In February 2013, the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP) issued a memo stipulating how federal funding agencies are to develop policies that provide public access to taxpayer-funded research results, including both peer-reviewed publications and raw data. The OSTP framework incorporates the baseline requirements for making scholarly information accessible to the public as mentioned in the America COMPETES Reauthorization Act of 2010 (passed in 2011).

    In general, the OSTP framework instructs agencies to provide public access to peer-reviewed articles in ways that:

    • Are flexible, balanced and based on real-world needs.
    • Account for the inherent variability among agencies and disciplines about the nature of research, types of data and dissemination models.
    • Could reduce federal costs by allowing the use of existing infrastructure and public/private partnerships whenever possible.

    The OSTP mandate is intended to apply to federal agencies that grant $100 million or more in funding for external (non-agency staff) R&D in fields such as medicine, geology, energy, environment, agriculture, physics and chemistry. There are more than 20 qualifying agencies, including the National Institutes of Health, Centers for Disease Control, National Science Foundation, Smithsonian Institution, Department of Energy and Department of Agriculture.

    These agencies have been working since 2013 to define their plans and policies according to the OSTP guidelines. Other grant-giving bodies are also starting to emulate the federal program for designating open access requirements.


    AAP's Concerns about OSTP

    The OSTP and AAP have compatible goals of broadening access while ensuring the economic viability of producing the high-quality, peer-reviewed articles on which the science community and the public rely. Publishers support many of the OSTP public access requirements, as they reflect the recommendations that publishers, librarians, researchers and academic institutions agreed on in the Scholarly Roundtable Report that the U.S. House Science Committee commissioned them to develop.

    For instance, the OSTP framework gives each federal agency the flexibility to define its own public access policies. This flexibility is designed to enhance public access while also acknowledging differences among agencies and scientific disciplines—considerations that can help ensure the long-term success of public access in practice.

    Find Out More: Current Open Access Discussions
    Get the latest update on AAP’s engagement on open access: Read Now 

    One Size Doesn’t Fit All for Embargo Periods

    OSTP allows agencies to set an embargo period that is specific to their discipline, and calls for this decision to be based on evidence of what is appropriate for that discipline. To date, however, each agency has reflexively set an embargo period at 12 months without citing any evidence regarding its validity.

    AAP member-publishers believe, and research shows, that a one-size-fits-all embargo period for scholarly articles will not fairly address disparities in journal usage and, in turn, may damage the sustainability of high-quality, peer-reviewed scholarly communication.

    For example, independent data available to the agencies includes the Journal Usage Half-Life Study, the first comprehensive study of journal usage, released in December 2013. It analyzed data from more than 2,800 journals in various disciplines and illustrated the difference in article usage patterns. Key findings include:

    • Journal article usage varies widely within and across disciplines.
    • It takes significant time for journals to experience half of the lifetime downloads of their articles (“half-life”).
    • Articles in the majority of journals receive more than half of their lifetime downloads three or more years after publication.
    • Only 3% of journals across all fields have half-lives of 12 months or less.
    • Health sciences articles have the shortest median half-life of the journals analyzed, but still more than 50% of health science journals have usage half-lives longer than 24 months.
    • In fields with the longest usage half-lives, including mathematics and the humanities, more than 50% of the journals have usage half-lives longer than 48 months.
    “We must remember that scholarly articles are available as soon as they are published; the debate is when they should become available to the world for free.” —Tom Allen, AAP President

    The Journal Usage Half-Life Study is the only study known to address the lifespan usage of a journal. AAP encourages similar studies that examine the issue from different perspectives and is willing to collaborate on new research projects that examine this topic further.

    There are viable ways to provide public access to scholarly works. AAP and member publishers stand ready to collaborate with any agency interested in designing a public access program that safeguards the sustainability of scholarly and peer-reviewed communication. We urge agencies to follow the OSTP guidelines to use evidence in their decisions to set embargo periods and to take the existing study into account in policy-making decisions around green open access.

    “There has been extensive dialogue surrounding public access and embargo periods, but assumptions, opinions and ideas have not yet been grounded in actual data about usage of journal literature.” —John Tagler, Vice President and Executive Director, Professional and Scholarly Publishing, AAP

    Challenges of Open Access for Raw Data

    The OSTP memo states that raw research data is also to be collected and shared with the public. How this can be achieved remains to be worked out among a variety of stakeholders. Raw data has traditionally not been part of published literature for several reasons, including:

    •    Authors frequently use sections of data sets for more than one article over a period of years, and a finite set of data may not necessarily be associated with a single article.

    •    Data, which is not copyrightable, is the intellectual property that lets scientists and industries compete, and many are understandably reluctant open their data to the world.

    •    Most articles have joint authors, some of whom may be at different institutions that have different data-sharing policies. 

    •    Different software and data formats are used over time and in different institutions. Many formats are incompatible, data structuring is varied and inconsistent or, in some cases, data may have been collected in older formats that can no longer be opened.

    Although OSTP’s desire for data to be accessible to all for free is commendable, there are huge costs and many policy and technological hurdles to overcome before it can be made available in a structured, retrievable format. Creating realistic policies and solutions will require the cooperation of many stakeholders who are deeply involved in research—funding agencies, researchers, universities, publishers, libraries, associations and technology specialists—and will add substantial time and investment in technology to the mix.


    Supporting Federal Agency Goals Through CHORUS

    As federal agencies worked to make journal articles that report on federally funded research publicly available, the OSTP encouraged them to employ existing infrastructure and use public/private partnerships whenever possible, rather than building up costly new and duplicative infrastructures. 

    In 2013, to support these objectives and expected policies, the publishing community supported the development of the non-profit membership organization, CHORUS (Clearinghouse for the Open Research of the United States).

    CHORUS is a multi-agency, multi-publisher, public/private partnership that enables U.S. agencies to freely provide the public with access to articles reporting on federally funded research. By leveraging the widely used scholarly communications infrastructure (which publishers have invested in for two decades) with open APIs and new applications, CHORUS services are interoperable across a broad range of funders, publisher platforms and reuse license terms. As a result, CHORUS is able to address the unique needs of diverse research communities and support academic freedom by empowering authors to publish in journals that have the greatest potential to advance their research with the audiences they want to reach.

    CHORUS minimizes the administrative effort and expense of compliance, and maximizes the identification, discovery, access, monitoring and preservation of publicly accessible content reporting on funded research. Its integration with existing submission workflows frees researchers to devote more of their time and energy to their research, rather than to administrative tasks. CHORUS’ distributed access approach enhances search capabilities and points to the best available version of the articles, as well as to applicable access license terms, on the publishers’ sites. Publisher members—who range from small scholarly societies through major commercial publishers—are obligated to ensure long-term preservation and perpetual availability of research literature, which CHORUS supports through partnerships with trusted archives. And CHORUS supports public access accountability and transparency by monitoring and auditing member content and reporting on funder and publisher dashboards.


    Why Collaborative, Flexible Approaches are Better than Legislation

    How and when journal articles become available free of charge anywhere in the world is an important, ongoing conversation taking place now not only in numerous government agencies but also in Congress.

    The benefit of an agency process is its flexibility. Federal agencies and other funders around the world are embarking on a vast experiment with a potentially profound impact on scholarly communication. As evidence comes in about the impact of this experiment, agencies need the flexibility to adjust their policies to ensure they are supporting quality science and maximizing the impact of federal investments in research. The existing OSTP guidance, initiated by Congress, provides this flexibility.

    Conversely, legislation, once enacted, is difficult to change in response to evolving needs, investments and advances. Legislation has been proposed that imposes one-size-fits-all approaches for all articles reporting on federally funded research and provides restrictions on license terms and distribution mechanisms. This approach does not recognize the needs of many subject communities, as shown by evidence including the Journal Usage Half-Life Study that confirms the need for different embargo policies for different disciplines. Open access decisions need to be responsive and reactive to what is happening in each discipline.

    The mission of scholarly publishers—the wide distribution of high-quality information and the integrity of the record of scientific research—is directly aligned with the objectives of the Obama Administration and others who want to increase the impact of research funding. Publishers have long supported the development of open access policies through a balanced, collaborative process. While every agency policy is different and many issues are yet to be resolved, AAP believes that OSTP’s framework, which directs agencies to develop independent open access policies that address their unique needs, is far more effective than wide-sweeping, generalized legislation for regulating public access.


    Other Models for Accessing Research Articles

    Publishers are always exploring new possibilities and models to encourage a competitive marketplace that is rich with diverse and sustainable business models while also broadening public access to scholarly research articles.

    Library Consortium Subscriptions

    People involved in research or who rely on research findings usually have access to journal articles through their affiliated institutions. These institutional libraries often license broad access to digital collections in order to make a wide variety of resources available to their audience of users.

    For greater buying flexibility and broader access to titles, individual academic libraries or other configurations—such as state university systems—may unite as a consortium (buying group). Agreements among library consortia, combined with flexible publisher licensing arrangements, can enable multi-institutional access to digital titles, extending each user’s access to research far beyond the individual subscriptions available at a particular library or institution.

    Free Public Access Through Libraries

    Some AAP member publishers are experimenting with free access to their journals through public libraries in the U.S., the U.K. and elsewhere as a public service. Most public universities also provide onsite access to their print and digital subscription collections to users from their local community.

    The Copyright Act (section 108) also allows for interlibrary loans, in which a library that does not have a specific journal may ask another library for copies of individual articles on behalf of its patrons. This service connects a wide and diverse network of cooperating libraries to give users access to information far beyond what is held locally.


    Pay-per-view access allows anyone to purchase a downloadable copy of a research paper for their use as defined by the journal’s license terms. Some publishers have offered a rental model, whereby users may “rent” a copy of a research paper for a certain period of time for a minimal fee. For example, DeepDyve allows anyone to rent full articles to read on any device with an Internet connection for up to one year, depending on the needs of the user, all at nominal rates.

    Spreading New Research to New Users and the Developing World

    Independent of U.S. government mandates, many scholarly publishers have embraced technology to put essential medical and scientific information into the hands of people who have not traditionally had easy access to research information, both domestically and internationally.

    For example, AAP and several member publishers from the Professional/Scholarly Publishing (PSP) division created two medical initiatives to help patients and their caregivers around the world access the latest medical information at little to no cost to recipients:

    • patientINFORM is an online service that provides patients and their caregivers with some of the most up-to-date, reliable and important research articles about the diagnosis and treatment of specific disease groups, at no cost to the patient. Voluntary health organizations filter and vet the literature for appropriate balance, relevance, value and appropriateness for use by non-specialist readers. The program is administered as a joint project between the PSP division of AAP and the International Association of Scientific, Technical & Medical Publishers (STM) in Europe.
    • patientACCESS is a collaborative project of select medical scholarly publishers, the PSP division of AAP, STM and the Copyright Clearance Center. Patients and their caregivers can search this online portal for information about a specific disease or diagnosis and receive unfiltered access to papers from designated journals that meet the search criteria. The articles can be downloaded for a small handling fee. Participating publishers are American Association for Cancer Research, American Society of Clinical Oncology, Elsevier, John Wiley & Sons, SAGE and Wolters Kluwer.

    PSP member publishers also played key roles in the launch of two other key collaborations that provide researchers in developing nations with free or low-cost access to quality research articles:  

    • Research4Life is a public-private partnership that provides researchers, faculty and students in developing nations with health, environmental and agricultural science content online. The success of this initiative is due to collaboration among more than 190 publishers (many of them AAP members); technology partners such as Microsoft and World Health Organization; organizations such as Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, United Nations Environmental Programme, and World Intellectual Property Organization; and research universities such as Cornell and Yale. Research4Life’s recent strategic plan is designed to help attain six of the United Nations’ eight Millennium Development Goals by 2020, reducing the scientific knowledge gap between industrialized countries and the developing world. More than 7,700 universities and research institutions in 100 countries benefit from Research4Life, entitling them to free or low-cost access to more than 44,000 peer-reviewed international scientific journals and books.
    • TEEAL (The Essential Electronic Agricultural Library) is a digital collection of thousands of full-text PDF research articles for agriculture and related sciences that researchers, students, faculty and librarians in qualifying institutions can discover and access without the use of the Internet. Designed for institutions that have limited Internet time and/or financial resources for Internet access, the collection arrives on a “mini computer” that can run on one computer workstation or can be made available to multiple computers via a local area network (LAN) or intranet. TEEAL is a project of Cornell University’s Albert R. Mann Library in cooperation with over 90 major scientific publishers, societies and index providers. TEEAL is available to institutions in income-eligible countries.


    Additional AAP Resources

    See Also