What Is the Deal with Open Access Journals?

A primer on the open access movement and its impact on academic publications

Unlocked security padlock appears next to the words 'open access'

Over the last few years, you have probably come across the term "open access" or seen articles listed in "open access journals" that don't require you to subscribe or pay a viewing fee. This might have led you to wonder about how open access works, including the journal's source of funding, the quality of the research, and whether the use of the content is subject to any restrictions.

This article will explain the basic principles of open access and how it works.

Defining open access

The concept of open access is simple: open access can be defined as "the practice of making peer-reviewed scholarly research and literature freely available online to anyone interested in reading it” without any barriers. "Barriers" may include subscription/viewing charges or copyright restrictions, among other things.

What does this mean for researchers? If you see an interesting or useful article that can help improve your research that is open access you don’t need to have a subscription or submit a request to your institution to pay for a copy. You also don't need to worry about unknowingly violating any copyright terms when referring to or citing an open-access article. Additionally, open access journals and repositories tend to have a user-friendly interface that can be used to search for articles. This is especially useful when combing through a large body of literature to look for specific keywords or keyword combinations.

What makes open access publication possible?

If the publisher isn't charging you a fee, where does the money come from? Processing, reviewing and publishing academic articles costs money, and someone needs to cover the costs. Open access journals generally use one of the following financial models:

  • Publication costs are borne upfront by the author or their institution. Some institutions show strong support for the open access movement and have funds in place to make this possible. These publication costs are termed "article-processing costs" (APCs). Some open access journals waive the article-processing fees in cases of economic need.
  • The open access journal is set up through an institutional fund, for example, an academic institution or a government research body, and authors are not required to pay any APCs. Such journals are commonly classified as gold, diamond, or platinum journals.
  • The publisher places an embargo on open publication of the article. In this delayed open access model, authors are allowed to freely publish their articles after waiting for a period of (usually) 6 months to a year, sometimes longer.

Open access models

So who hosts articles in an open access environment and how does it work? There are three main methods for implementing open access:

1. Open access journals that have the entirety of their articles, research data, and relevant content made freely available.

2. Hybrid open access journals are partially supported by subscriptions. The articles for which APCs have been paid are available for free while others are not.

3. Green open access is a system whereby articles are posted to a website or repository controlled by the author, their research sponsor, or a separate academic institution that maintains a central repository. These articles may or may not be peer-reviewed. All authors are allowed to publish preprints of their articles online, and most journals allow authors to also publish the postprints. Archives may be maintained at an institutional level or may host research specific to a particular scientific discipline.

The pros and cons of open access

There is an ongoing debate on the merits and shortcomings of open access and the way in which it currently functions. Questions arise over quality, ease of dissemination, and publisher ethics.


  • A clear benefit of open access is enabling a much larger number of people to circumvent economic barriers and gain access to your research.
  • Open access reduces the time barriers it takes to spread important research. More scholars are likely to read your articles and build upon your ideas, quickly advancing the knowledge in your discipline. Further, teaching institutions can also update their material to include the most recent studies, reducing the time gap for scientific progress.
  • Innovation is made easier when more businesses can access up-to-date scientific breakthroughs and use the most relevant data to create better products, tools, and solutions.

So why might scholars want to think twice before publishing in an open access journal?


  • Publishing research in reputable journals is an important part of most scholars’ career and professional goals. Newer open access journals may not immediately have a high impact factor, which makes them less attractive to researchers.
  • Traditional publishing is relatively easy; the journal takes care of all of the administrative processes after manuscript submission. Open access journals sometimes require more involvement from the author, especially in the case of green open access (where the author may need to maintain their own website, for example). Traditional journals arrange for peer review, edit and index articles, and have measures in place to uphold high scientific standards, all of which involves an investment that may not be possible for authors publishing independently.
  • There are many dubious open access publications that take advantage of the business model by charging authors for APCs but not providing the required services. Authors find out after they have published that the journal lacks a dedicated editorial or administrative team or is simply a scam. You can search databases that evaluate journals, such as QOAM or Scirev.org, to determine the legitimacy of a specific journal or publisher.


Going the route of open access may involve a significant financial or time investment. Since the immediate benefits to individual researchers are not always clear and scholars are skeptical of the academic level of some of these journals, many tend to be put off. However, the benefits to the academic community and to scientific research as a whole are numerous and demand proper consideration. The rapid spread of knowledge and unrestricted access to scholars and the public, irrespective of their economic backgrounds, gives rise to faster research, development, and learning across borders.

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