Open Access to Scientific Publications

Figure by Patrick Hochstenbach, n.d.; “Yes! I told you!”, CC BY

Open Access to publications means that research publications like articles and books can be accessed online, free of charge by any user, with no technical obstacles (such as mandatory registration, the use of proprietary software or login to specific platforms). At the very least, such publications can be read online, downloaded and printed.


After the Second World War, many of the scientific discoveries, which were previously disseminated through non-profit publishers (usually scientific societies) began to be published through large commercial publishers. Then, in the 1970s, this oligopoly was further reinforced by the creation of the Journal Impact Factor (JIF), in which articles were considered more or less relevant depending on the journal in which they were published.

From the 1980s onwards, access to scientific publications became more limited, because, with the increase in the price of journals, far beyond inflation, universities and research centres were overloaded, which culminated in the “Serials Crisis”. Another important factor to be considered at this time was the great advance in information and communication technologies that enabled other business models for the for-profit publishing conglomerates commonly named among academic librarians as “Big Deal Packages” (Cassady; Johnson; Ivanov, 2020).

With the promise of increasing the diversity of titles in the collections publishers began offering bundled subscriptions to e-journals for a fixed annual fee. However, in addition to not allowing each library to subscribe only to the titles that interested, but to the whole package, prices continued to rise at a rate double that of inflation. 

Taking advantage of the possibilities generated by computers and networks, the open access movement arises to explore new publishing models from the understanding that research contributions should be considered a public good (European Commission, 2019).

Open Access Routes

Ideally, additional rights such as the right to copy, distribute, search, link, crawl and mine should also be provided. Open Access can be fulfilled through two main non-exclusive routes:

  • Green Open Access (self-archiving): The published work or the final peer-reviewed manuscript that has been accepted for publication is made freely and openly accessible by the author, or a representative, in an online repository. Some publishers request that Open Access be granted only after an embargo period has elapsed. This embargo period can last anywhere between several months and several years. For publications that have been deposited in a repository but are under embargo, usually, at least the metadata are openly accessible.
  • Gold Open Access (Open Access publishing): The published work is made available Open Access by the publisher immediately upon publication. The most common business model is based on one-off payments by authors (commonly called APCs – article processing charges – or BPCs – book processing charges). Where Open Access content is combined with content that requires a subscription or purchase, in particular in the context of journals, conference proceedings and edited volumes, this is called hybrid Open Access.
Open Access Initiatives

Over the years, several initiatives that aim to create and support the Open Science Ecosystem have emerged, many of which are listed in our Open Science timelineHowever, it is necessary to detail four of the most important for advancing open access to scientific publications:

Budapest Open Access Initiative (2002)

BOAI is a public statement of principles relating to open access to research literature and was released February 14, 2002, and is a result of a meeting held in Budapest by the Open Science Institute in December 2001 to promote open access. It opens with the following statement: “An old tradition and a new technology have converged to make possible an unprecedented public good. The old tradition is the willingness of scientists and scholars to publish the fruits of their research in scholarly journals without payment, for the sake of inquiry and knowledge. The new technology is the internet. The public good they make possible is the worldwide electronic distribution of the peer-reviewed journal literature and completely free and unrestricted access to it by all scientists, scholars, teachers, students, and other curious minds. Removing access barriers to this literature will accelerate research, enrich education, share the learning of the rich with the poor and the poor with the rich, make this literature as useful as it can be, and lay the foundation for uniting humanity in a common intellectual conversation and quest for knowledge.” – Budapest Open Access Initiative

Bethesda Statement on Open Access Publishing (2003)

The statement was drafted in a meeting in 2003 at the headquarters of the Howard Hughes Medical Institute in Chevy Chase, Maryland, and starts with a definition of Open Access Publication.

An Open Access Publication meets the following two conditions:

1. “The author(s) and copyright holder(s) grant(s) to all users a free, irrevocable, worldwide, perpetual right of access to, and a license to copy use distribute, transmit and display the work publicly and to make and distribute derivative works, in any digital medium for any responsible purpose, subject to proper attribution of authorship, as well as the right to make small numbers of printed copies for their personal use.

2. A complete version of the work and all supplemental materials, including a copy of the permission as stated above, in a suitable standard electronic format is deposited immediately upon initial publication in at least one online repository that is supported by an academic institution, scholarly society, government agency, or other well-established organization that seeks to enable open access, unrestricted distribution, interoperability, and long-term archiving (for the biomedical sciences, PubMed Central is such a repository).” – Bethesda Statement on Open Access Publishing

Berlin Declaration on Open Access to Knowledge (2003)

Is an international statement on open access and access to knowledge. It was drafted at a conference on open access hosted in Berlin by the Max Planck Society in 2003.

The Berlin Declaration’s definition of an Open Access Contribution:

“Establishing open access as a worthwhile procedure ideally requires the active commitment of each and every individual producer of scientific knowledge and holder of cultural heritage. Open access contributions include original scientific research results, raw data and metadata, source materials, digital representations of pictorial and graphical materials and scholarly multimedia material.

Open access contributions must satisfy two conditions:

1. The author(s) and right holder(s) of such contributions grant(s) to all users a free, irrevocable, worldwide, right of access to, and a license to copy, use, distribute, transmit and display the work publicly and to make and distribute derivative works, in any digital medium for any responsible purpose, subject to proper attribution of authorship (community standards, will continue to provide the mechanism for enforcement of proper attribution and responsible use of the published work, as they do now), as well as the right to make small numbers of printed copies for their personal use.

2. A complete version of the work and all supplemental materials, including a copy of the permission as stated above, in an appropriate standard electronic format, is deposited (and thus published) in at least one online repository using suitable technical standards (such as the Open Archive definitions) that are supported and maintained by an academic institution, scholarly society, government agency, or other well-established organization that seeks to enable open access, unrestricted distribution, interoperability, and long-term archiving.” – Berlin Declaration on Open Access to Knowledge

Plan S (2018)

Plan S is the initiative of cOAlition S funders, a group that comprises national research funding organisations and charitable foundations together with the European Commission and the ERC. Plan S’s main principle is:

“With effect from 2021, all scholarly publications on the results from research funded by public or private grants provided by national, regional and international research councils and funding bodies, must be published in Open Access Journals, on Open Access Platforms, or made immediately available through Open Access Repositories without embargo.”

COAlition S advocates for:

– Science open for all;
– Revision of the incentive and reward system of science, using the San Francisco Declaration on Research Assessment (DORA) as a starting point;
– Changes to the publishing system when “There is no valid reason to maintain any kind of subscription-based business model for scientific publishing”;
– Immediate open access with no embargo period;
– Initiatives that establish robust quality criteria for Open Access publishing, such as the Directory of Open Access Journals (DOAJ) and the Directory of Open Access Books (DOAB).

Open Access Policies

Open Access (OA) publication is essential in scholarly communication in a digital setting, and science related agencies are implementing policies that support the transition to new publishing models. Research funders, including FCT (Fundação para a Ciência e a Tecnologia) the main Portuguese public agency supporting science, technology, and innovation, have made OA publication a requirement.

FCT’s policy is available since May 2014.

“The core of the policy on open access to publications arising from FCT-funded research is that all publications of research outputs, subject to peer-review or another form of scientific review, should be deposited in one of the open access repositories hosted within RCAAP as soon as possible, preferably immediately on acceptance for publication. An embargo period is allowed, after which the full content of the publications should be made freely available, at no cost. The policy applies to papers in scientific journals, conference proceedings, posters, books and book chapters, monographs, Masters and PhD theses. FCT funding encompasses project grants, studentships and fellowships, career development contracts (FCT Investigator)”.

– FCT Open Access Policy (PT)

Open x Free

Since BOAI, some scientific publishers – under pressure from the academic community – began to adopt some of the Open Access components. However, some predatory practices began to spread, including launching a journal as open access and changing licenses when achieving the desired visibility and impact. Furthermore, it is necessary to differentiate open and free and this difference is essentially related to its nature, as an open journal will remain open, whereas a free journal may become paid. The figure below illustrates some of the levels of openness:

Figure by SPARC and PLOS, 2014 “How Open is it?, CC BY
Open peer review

The open access movement to scientific publications brought several discussions to the fore, such as the business model practised by scientific publishers, the availability and preservation of research data, the metrics used to define publication quality and the process of peer review. It is in this context that a new peer review model called Open Peer Review was proposed.

According to Ross-Hellauer (2017), an Open Peer Review (OPR) process can increase transparency, accountability and inclusiveness, as well as provide greater flexibility to the traditional peer review model. The author defines OPR as “an umbrella term for a number of overlapping ways that peer review models can be adapted in line with the aims of Open Science, including making reviewer and author identities open, publishing review reports and enabling greater participation in the peer review process” and lists as the main traits of open peer review: open identities, open reports, open participation, open interaction, open peer-review manuscripts, open final-version commenting and open platforms. 

For more details click here.

Author’s rights, copyrights and piracy

Regarding the author’s rights over their publications, it is important to highlight the difference between moral and patrimonial rights. Moral rights are about the recognition of the authorship of the work and they are perpetual, inalienable and imprescriptible. Patrimonial rights also referred to as “economic rights”, can be transferred to another person or institution, complying with the legislation in force which regulates the use, reproduction, commercialization and all the economic benefits derived from the work. 

It is very common that the author waives their economic rights when publishing their work in major scientific journals. However, what authors often do not realize is that the result of their scientific work published in these journals will be restricted to people and institutions that pay for it. That is, it is possible that the very institution that financed the development of the research will have to pay again to have access to its results.

In order to help authors overcome legal barriers in sharing knowledge and art, Creative Commons (CC) has developed a series of licenses and tools that allow individuals or organizations to choose how their works can be used. The main licenses are illustrated in the figure below:

Figure by Research Outreach, 2018; “The Creative Commons licences explained, CC BY NC ND 4.0

 Click here to know more about Creative Commons.

Over the last years, several platforms that make copies of books, articles and other academic content available have emerged. However, these platforms often violate copyright laws. So it is important to point out  that the routes proposed by the Open Access Movement respect the author’s rights, either encouraging publication in open scientific journals or depositing pre-print versions in open repositories.

Learn more: