What is open access?

A short introduction to open access.

• Peter Desmet

Image by Peter Desmet

Note: This post is a response to this task of an online course on open science I am following. In addition to the sources mentioned in text, I have also used a blog post from fellow participant Quentin Reul.

Open access is free, immediate, and online availability of peer-reviewed research articles and other scientific works. It has several advantages over traditional publication practices and will hopefully replace those in the long term.

Old model

The invention of the printing press in the 15th century suddenly allowed works to be created, copied and distributed to a wide audience, rather than being painstakingly copied by hand. Scientific societies were founded, which used this tool to facilitate the publication of scientific works (peer-reviewing, type-setting, distributing). To recoup the (rather high) costs, articles were published in subscription based journals.

New model

This business model has worked for a long time (and is still the dominant model in use today), but since the ubiquity of the internet, the cost of publishing works has decreased dramatically, so other publication models are possible.

Numerous scientific works are also the result of scientific research that is funded with public money, so there is a moral duty to make those results available fast and free to anyone.

And publicly available scientific works increase the efficiency of research, not only research in general, but also the research of the author of the article, by:

  • Reaching a wider (and different) audience
  • Publishing research results faster (including negative results)
  • Increasing engagement and collaboration
  • Increasing transparency (which allows reproducibility and plagiarism detection)
  • Allowing alt metrics systems to be built around scientific works

The importance of open access is illustrated in this video by Nick Shockey, Jonathan Eisen and Jorge Cham (of the excellent PhD Comics).


From a legal perspective, the open access movement has been made possible by the creation of licenses - such as the Creative Commons licenses - that allow copyright holders to loosen some of the rights they hold over their work. The CC-BY license for example, which I use for this blog post, allows anyone to legally share and remix the work, as long as they credit the original source.

Flavours of open access

As with any paradigm shift, the ultimate goal of open access won’t be reached immediately, so there are different flavours of open access:

  • Green open access: the journal might no be open access, but the authors can self-archive their article under an open access license (here’s a tutorial).
  • Gold open access: the journal itself is open access (see for example the Directory on open access journals).
    • Gratis open access: The article is available online at no-cost.
    • Libre open access: The article is available online at no-cost and there are additional usage rights (yeay!)