Open access refers to the practice of making peer-reviewed scholarly research and literature freely available online to anyone interested in reading it. Open access has two different versions—gratis and libre.
Gratis open access is simply making research available for others to read without having to pay for it. However, it does not grant the user the right to make copies, distribute, or modify the work in any way beyond fair use. Libre open access is gratis, meaning the research is available free of charge, but it goes further by granting users additional rights, usually via a Creative Commons license, so that people are free to reuse and remix the research. There are varying degrees of what may be considered Libre open access. For example, some scholarly articles may permit all uses except commercial use, some may permit all uses except derivative works, and some may permit all uses and simply require attribution. While some would argue that Libre open access should be free of any copyright restrictions (except attribution), other scholars consider a work that removes at least some permission barriers to be libre.
In addition to the gratis/libre distinction regarding users’ rights to a work, there are also distinctions regarding the venue in which open access works are published and archived—green and gold. Green open access involves authors self-archiving their articles by sharing them on their own website, or more preferably, in their institution's Institutional Repository or in some other public archive. Gold open access articles are published in a journal that is open access, which means the journal will handle hosting and distributing the journal article in a free and open manner. Gold open access can come with a cost—some gold open access journals have publication fees that need to paid by the author (or the author's employer) to cover the cost of publishing the article. These publication fees can be costly, but thankfully less than a third of gold open access journals have a publication fee. Currently, most Gold open access journals are still publishing gratis (free of charge to read) as opposed to libre (free of charge to read, copy, distribute, etc).
For a brief introduction to open access, watch this video from PHD Comics.
What are the origins of open access?
The formal beginnings of the open access movement are several declarations issued in the early 2000s: the Budapest Open Access Initiative (2002), the Bethesda Statement on Open Access Publishing (2003), and the Berlin Declaration on Open Access to Knowledge in the Sciences and Humanities (2003). The policies put forth in those declarations form the core tenets of the modern open access movement, but there are several antecedents like arXiv, a public repository for scientific papers. So while some academic disciplines were freely sharing knowledge before the three declarations were issued, it was those three declarations that codified open access into the cohesive movement it is today. Notably, all three of the declarations required articles to be published both gratis and libre to be considered open access, but in practice gratis is still more common. In 2012, the Budapest Open Access Initiative acknowledged, "We should not delay achieving gratis in order to achieve libre, and we should not stop with gratis when we can achieve libre.”
Why does open access matter?
New knowledge is built by synthesizing current scholarship and then building upon it. If the current scholarship is behind a pay-wall, only those who can afford access can truly contribute to moving our knowledge of a subject forward. Non-Open Access Academic journals can be very expensive, making scholarly research a costly undertaking for someone with a limited research budget. Academic libraries have subscriptions to a large number of scholarly journals, and many allow members of the local community to access the library's journals if they visit the library in person, but the ever rising costs of journal subscriptions is a burden on libraries' budgets. A single institution's annual subscription can cost university libraries anywhere from $5,000 to $600,000. Instead of being stuck behind a paywall imposed by often exorbitant subscription prices, Open Access research can be read by anyone with access to the Internet. Open Access levels the playing field so that an independent scholar, an adjunct faculty member at a small college, and a tenured faculty member at a major research university have the same level of access.
Who benefits from open access?
Scholars, students, and the general public benefit from open access. It can help save a language or index North American archaeological data. If you are interested in dinosaurs, open access provides you with information about the most newly-discovered dinosaur species. Open access means that professors and students can access a larger body of research without having to wait for (possibly lengthy) inter-library loan requests. And open access is not just beneficial to academia. If your local elected officials have access to studies about how things worked or did not work in another city, they can make more informed policy decisions. If your healthcare provider can freely read the latest medical research, they can provide you with more up-to-date medical advice and treatments. Really, everyone benefits from open access policies.
What can I do to encourage open access?
Anyone can help raise awareness by installing the open access button in their web browser and sharing it via social media. Open Access Week is an international event that occurs online, in late October every year. It offers ideas for students, researchers, funders, administrators, librarians, and others to connect and show their support for open access. It is a good opportunity to learn more about open access and to share with others.
If you are a scholar, consider submitting your work to a journal that is open access. If you are doing research about open source, there are several open access journals to choose from. For the life sciences, F1000Research is an excellent choice and is quite innovative. Also, the journal Nature Methods has recently embraced openness in a big way. If none of those are a match for your research, you can explore the Directory of Open Access Journals to find the right journal for you. If you cannot find a journal that is right for you, please consider self-archiving by adding your journal article to your institution's open access Institutional Repository. And if your institution does not have an institutional repository, advocate for the creation of one.
Where can I learn more about open access?
Beyond the sites already mentioned above, Scholarly Publishing & Academic Resources Coalition (SPARC) is a great resource, and you can find practical instructions for implementing open access in the Open Access Scholarly Information Sourcebook (OASIS). For a student-focused look at open access, Right to Research is a good starting point. Peter Suber's book, Open Access, is freely available under a Creative Commons license and provides a solid overview of the topic if you want something with a little more depth. You can also check out the Open Access Directory's list of Blogs about Open Access, or read Opensource.com's articles about open access.
Finally, the documentary The Internet's Own Boy: The Story of Aaron Swartz provides a glimpse into the life and tragic death of one of the early leaders of the open access movement. Swartz, co-developer of the RSS protocol and co-founder of Reddit, exhibited such passion for open access that he attempted to download and distribute all articles from a digital academic journal library called JSTOR, which ensnared him in a two-year legal battle with federal prosecutors for wire and computer fraud. His untimely death in 2013 spurred a renewed call for scholars to support open access journals and publish their work in libre formats.