A laptop in amongst a pile of books

Engaging with research literature

350 years after the first academic journals were published, the journal article remains central to the communication of scholarly information. But with most scholarly articles now digital and online, the possibilities for dissemination and sharing of content are greater than they have ever been before. Since the beginning of the Web there has been a drive towards providing open access to publications, making them freely available online to anyone with an internet connection. The move has been accelerated by government initiatives across the world seeking to ensure the widest possible access to the results of publicly funded research.

Of course, if it was as straightforward as making publications free online, then open access would have been commonplace long ago. While academic authors rarely expect financial income from the journal articles they write, edit or review, the publishers of those articles – whether commercial or not-for-profit – often rely on the income from sales and subscriptions to carry out quality control and preparation of articles. While some publishers may be subsidised in a way that allows them to offer all content free of charge, many publishing organisations would not be sustainable without income from subscriptions. To provide open access to publications while maintaining a viable business model, two models of open access have emerged.

‘Gold’ Open Access

Many publishers have switched from charging for access to content, to charging authors to publish. This model has been controversial in some areas: it can be seen to remove inequalities in access to content at the expense of inequalities in authors’ ability to publish content, with those authors not in receipt of large research grants unable to pay publication costs. It has also been argued that receiving payment per article published could reduce the incentive for publishers to apply strict quality control. Nonetheless, charging to publish does provide a simple model for open access to peer-reviewed and published content, and the number of journals adopting this model is increasing. To accommodate authors unable to pay the publication fee, some journals will offer a fee waiver, whereas others adopt a ‘hybrid’ model - publishing articles with or without payment but only providing open access to those articles for which a fee is paid.

‘Green’ Open Access

Another model for providing open access is for authors to share pre-publication versions of their own manuscripts through an open access repository: an open access database of research papers arranged around a particular subject area – for example, arXiv.org – or around a particular institution - for example White Rose Research Online. While the published version of the article may require a subscription to the publisher’s platform, the pre-publication version can be freely downloaded from the repository, and will usually be returned by a Google Scholar search. Universities increasingly see their institutional open access repositories as a way of curating the research output of the institution.

While the ability to access articles free of charge is central to open access, the ability to share and reuse content is also important, and for some people, content cannot be considered truly open access unless those that download the content can freely share and reuse it without violating copyright. Open access content on a publisher’s website is often released under a Creative Commons licence to allow for sharing and reuse, and this will be indicated on the journal platform. Reuse rights for repository content is more varied and just because an output is free to download from a repository does not mean that the content can be shared or reused. Repositories should, ideally, indicate the reuse rights for each document they hold.

Of course, journal articles are not the only type of research publications, and while open access books are not as established as open access journals, a number of publishers are finding innovative ways to provide open access to book chapters, monographs and other scholarly outputs while maintaining quality and economic viability. The move towards open access is showing no sign of slowing, and many people predict a future in which all scholarly publications are freely available online.

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This article is from the free online course:

Becoming a Digital Citizen: an Introduction to the Digital Society

University of York