What is Open Access?
There are many differing definitions of what constitutes Open Access.
The Higher Education Funding Council for England, previously a research funder that was succeeded in 2018 by UK Research and Innovation, used a broad description that is primarily about access to the material:
Open access is about making the products of research freely accessible to all.
Springer, a major commercial publisher of research, are more specific in their definition that Open Access should include the ability to reuse (i.e. not just access) the materials:
At its most fundamental Open Access is when publications are freely available online to all at no cost and with limited restrictions with regards reuse.
Whilst Peter Suber – researcher, Open Access advocate, and Director of the Harvard Office for Scholarly Communication – has a similar focus on intellectual property in his concise but exact definition:
Open-access (OA) literature is digital, online, free of charge, and free of most copyright and licensing restrictions.
Why do we need it?
Academic researchers aim to make some kind of positive change in the world through their research. This might be primarily an academic impact, e.g. through the advancement of knowledge and understanding in a particular discipline, or it could be an economic or sociological impact, e.g. the commercialisation of research, informing political decisions and debates, enriching cultural lives, advancing the understanding and treatment of health conditions, etc.
The change to Open Access is necessary because academic research is too valuable to restrict readers from accessing. Having the outputs of researchers behind paywalls limits the access of potential readers and therefore the positive impact that the research is intended to make.
What are the benefits for researchers from Open Access?
As readers: Imagine this – you want to read an article or a chapter, you Google the title, you click the link, you are now reading the text. Compare that with the process you currently use for locating the texts that inform your research.
The remarkable convenience of Open Access for readers (in the Gold route to Open Access) means the task of keeping up to date with a subject or performing a literature review is not slowed down by the laborious sourcing of publications. The focus moves to where it should be: establishing what is already known and therefore where there is an opportunity to extend a discipline into original territory.
As authors: Put simply, publications that are openly accessible are more likely to be read and therefore more likely to be cited: a 2018 study found that Open Access articles receive 18% more citations than average. Meanwhile, the publisher Nature describe the benefits to authors as increased citation and usage, greater public engagement, faster impact, wider collaboration, and increased interdisciplinary conversation.
This graphic nicely illustrates some of the wider benefits of Open Access for authors: