Open access: why and how to do it

Here, a librarian and master of information student offer insight into facets of open access publishing and the challenges relating to it


12 Mar 2024
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Open access publishing continues to gain ground, with universities and libraries offering increased support in the form of funding for publisher fees and repository infrastructure. Research funders increasingly require publications arising from funded research to be open access. Yet misconceptions about it remain. We want to clear the air about what open access is, how open access publications compare with traditional ones and how to make your work open access.

What is open access publishing?

Open access publishing refers to research outputs that are accessible to the public without requiring anything in return, including fees, personal information or an account with the publisher. While data and scholarship more broadly can be made open, we focus on publishing scholarly articles in an open access format.

Librarians are typically highly knowledgeable in many facets of open access publishing so are key resources in addressing challenges relating to it.

Why is open access publishing important?

The open access movement is rooted in the belief that everyone should have access to scholarly findings. Subscription-based publishing models often exclude those without institutional affiliations or the financial resources to pay subscription fees. The cost of subscription access to journals has increased far beyond the rate of inflation in recent decades, rendering access difficult for researchers not affiliated with well-resourced institutions, particularly those in low-income countries. Open access advances the application of research beyond academia by enabling access for community groups, policymakers, clinicians and practitioners across disciplines.

In addition to improving accessibility, open access attempts to address the “double-dipping” that can occur when taxpayer-funded research is purchased through library subscriptions. Namely, publishers should not charge for access to research information that was paid for by the public.

Making research outputs open access supports the rapid dissemination of findings and enhances collaboration, because individuals and institutions don’t have to navigate institutional licences or refer to author agreements to determine whether sharing their works with a particular person constitutes fair use. When a work is open access, it generally has an associated licence, but it dictates use rather than access. 

Practically speaking, supporting access to publications enhances their impact, as evidenced by higher citation counts and citations from a greater diversity of users. Publishing open access in some form is often a requirement of funding agencies, institutions or governments. Connect with a librarian at your institution to determine whether open access publishing is mandated in your specific case.

Common misconceptions

1. Open access journals are inherently of lower quality than subscription-based journals

The reality: because open access publishing can involve the author paying publisher fees, some assume a similarity between open access publishing and vanity presses. The existence of “predatory journals”, which publish works without appropriate quality control mechanisms for the sake of collecting fees, has further confused the issue. Nevertheless, while quality can vary across both subscription-based and open journals, there are many high-quality and reputable open access journals. The Directory of Open Access Journals (DOAJ) is a free tool you can use to find them. You can use it to search by title, subject, publisher, country and more.

2. Publishing open access means publishing in an expensive open access journal

The reality: while publishing articles in an open access journal is a common way to make your work open access, it is by no means the only way; there are a variety of other options. When cost is not a consideration, consider either fully open access or hybrid journals, which publish subscription-access and open access articles together. Major publishers, such as Elsevier, Sage and Cambridge University Press, offer lists of hybrid journals on their websites. Sherpa Romeo is a website that collects and reviews open access policies from publishers worldwide. It offers summaries of copyright and open access archiving rules for each journal. Publishing open access in a fully open access or hybrid journal often, but not always, requires the payment of an article or author processing charge (APC); however, it is also possible to make your work open access at no or reduced cost.

“Green open access” is an option that involves depositing your work (typically the post-peer review accepted version or “post print”) in an institutional or discipline-specific repository. While the article might be behind a paywall in a subscription-based journal, the content is freely accessible. Many organisations have institutional repositories supported by librarians. Additionally, your library might subscribe to publisher agreements that provide waivers or discounts on APCs, called transformative agreements. Another cost-free option is diamond open access journals, which do not charge APCs. Typically, these are smaller journals run by volunteers. You can find them via the DOAJ, which offers a filter for “journals without fees”.

How to make your work, even previously published work, open access

We advise consulting a librarian early in the process of determining your publishing options. Talk to a librarian before you start your manuscript to accommodate journal-specific requirements. For those with funds to pay APCs, all open access journals are an option and librarians can help to identify respected open access journals relevant to your topic. They can also support assessing the integrity of journals that might be unfamiliar. The initiative Think. Check. Submit. provides a checklist of issues to consider when evaluating a journal.

For those unable or unwilling to divert research funds to pay APCs, it might be possible to identify an appropriate diamond open access journal. For most researchers, green open access remains a key option. It is critical to ensure that the journal’s copyright transfer agreement supports green open access. Most do, given that it is a common funder requirement. Librarians can help researchers understand the terms of these agreements and support manuscript deposit in an appropriate repository. We advise researchers to revisit the terms of previously published articles to see if green open access is possible.

Although sometimes associated with high financial costs, open access publishing is not a luxury. The knowledge gained from research is impactful only if it is available to those who would build upon or use it. Fortunately, the variety of options means that open access publishing is possible for everyone.

Melissa A. Rothfus is a scholarly communications librarian and Catherine Gracey is a master of information student at Dalhousie University.

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